Who Do You Trust? Melissa James Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR Two images kept Mitch McCluskey fighting for life on the secret mission he'd sworn would be his last: reuniting with his sons…and seeing sweet Melissa Carroll. Without hesitation, his childhood friend had made her home his boys', but Mitch sensed that some man had made Lissa doubt her desirability…just as someone was making her fear the last person who would ever hurt her.Him.Lissa wanted to believe that Mitch was one of the good guys, just as she wanted to believe that the feral look in his eyes was for a passion fifteen years postponed. But despite his beloved familiarity, Mitch was a stranger she'd been warned not to trust. Problem was, her heart wasn't responding to the warning. He’d disappeared from her life for years, and then reappeared like magic. Seeming so much like the Mitch she’d loved with all the depth of her romantic girl’s heart—yet a stranger. A man with edges of danger that excited her…secrets that scared the living daylights out of her. And an untamed sexuality she suspected she’d only glimpsed so far. How could a man like Mitch, always on the fringes of risk, want her? At first, yeah, for the family he’d never had; she’d understood that even as she hated it. But now? Dare she believe him when he said he wanted her—only her? He seemed to be burning alive for her, but, as she’d found out over the past few weeks, nothing with Mitch was what it seemed. And finding out the lies beneath the secrets would break her heart. Dear Reader, This month we have something really special on tap for you. The Cinderella Mission, by Catherine Mann, is the first of three FAMILY SECRETS titles, all of them prequels to our upcoming anthology Broken Silence and then a twelve book stand-alone FAMILY SECRETS continuity. These books are cutting edge, combining dark doings, mysterious experiments and overwhelming passion into a mix you won’t be able to resist. Next month, the story continues with Linda Castillo’s The Phoenix Encounter. Of course, this being Intimate Moments, the excitement doesn’t stop there. Award winner Justine Davis offers up another of her REDSTONE, INCORPORATED tales, One of These Nights. A scientist who’s as handsome as he is brilliant finds himself glad to welcome his sexy bodyguard—and looking forward to exploring just what her job description means. Wilder Days (leading to wilder nights?) is the newest from reader favorite Linda Winstead Jones. It will have you turning the pages so fast, you’ll lose track of time. Ingrid Weaver begins a new military miniseries, EAGLE SQUADRON, with Eye of the Beholder. There will be at least two follow-ups, so keep your eyes open so you don’t miss them. Evelyn Vaughn, whose miniseries THE CIRCLE was a standout in our former Shadows line, makes her Intimate Moments debut with Buried Secrets, a paranormal tale that’s as passionate as it is spooky. And Aussie writer Melissa James is back with Who Do You Trust? This is a deeply emotional “friends become lovers” reunion romance, one that will captivate you from start to finish. Enjoy! And come back next month for more of the best and most exciting romance around—right here in Silhouette Intimate Moments. Leslie J. Wainger Executive Senior Editor Who Do You Trust? Melissa James www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) MELISSA JAMES is a mother of three living in a beach suburb in county New South Wales. A former nurse, waitress, store assistant, perfume and chocolate (yum!) demonstrator among other things, she believes in taking on new jobs for the fun experience. She’ll try almost anything at least once to see what it feels like—a fact that scares her family on regular occasions. She fell into writing by accident when her husband brought home an article stating how much a famous romance author earned, and she thought, “I can do that!” Years later, she found her niche at Silhouette Intimate Moments. Currently writing a pilot/spy series set in the South Pacific, she can be found most mornings walking and swimming at her local beach with her husband, or every afternoon running around to her kids’ sporting hobbies, while dreaming of flying, scuba diving, belaying down a cave or over a cliff—anywhere her characters are at the time! Acknowledgments I wish to give thanks to my editor, Gail Chasan, for liking this book and thinking up its title, and to Gillian Hanna, for loving this book and giving pertinent suggestions, and also to Susan Litman for the same. Thank you, ladies. Deep thanks once again to Andrea Johnston and Maryanne Cappelluti, my dear friends and trusted critique partners, who always tell me what I need to hear. And to my daughter Jaime, whose ideas on what a hero should be helped bring Mitch’s background and character to life. Finally, thanks to Deri Banez and Manuel Hanares, for sharing their knowledge of the Tagalog language with me. And a very special thanks for this story must go to those who helped inspire it: to the refugees of the world, those suffering through war, so many helped, so many others merely unheard cries of protest amid the problems in more affluent countries. Dedication To my very own Lissa. This book is for you. I love you. We will never forget. Your loving Aunty and adopted “Mum.” Contents Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Epilogue Prologue Ka-Nin-Put Village, Tumah-ra Island, Arafura Sea McCluskey pulled back on the throttle to lose altitude: eight thousand feet and falling. Don’t go beneath ten thousand feet before the official UN nod to go, Skydancer. Strict government orders, McCluskey. The militia shoots first and won’t ask questions later. Anson had known the orders were impossible when he gave them, which was why he’d sent him to this war-ravaged island. Mitch McCluskey, code name: Skydancer. Also known as the rule breaker. His cover was perfect, bona fide work with the Vincent Foundation, doing food drops to war-torn towns and villages the world over. He handed out bags of grain and long-life milk, throwing extras at the militia to stop them from shooting pregnant women and hungry kids, snatching food to tame their aggressive corps. He had great footage—if you could stomach watching it—of Tumah-ran men torching buildings in their hometowns, shooting old people, dragging girls and young women away with them. Boys as young as ten destroying their neighbors’ homes and tearing friends’ families apart for the sake of the warped politics they’d been force-fed—in reality, for control of the oil-rich shelf below the coral reefs surrounding the little island, an untamed paradise until the hated strike of black gold. Then he’d returned to Darwin and traded the official DC-10 for his own Maule bush plane, on recon work for the Nighthawks, a select bunch of expert international troubleshooters. Answerable only to Nick Anson, an ex-CIA hotshot who’d made it his business to stop military takeovers in small nations from becoming bloodbaths. Only the cream of the top brass had even heard of Nighthawks. The heads of governments of the world only used them when they had to make public denials of involvement. If the rebel flyboys, ex-Navy SEALs and one-time Special Services or Green Berets were captured in hostile territory, they were on their own. He wasn’t gonna get squat on film this high up, with this dark, turbulent band of monsoon cloud beneath him. He had to drop lower. After Bosnia and East Timor, the world wouldn’t invade another disputed territory unless there was compelling evidence of human rights abuse by the ruling junta. Which was today’s job description. Survey the hot-spot island, make a lightning check of the land for incinerated pits or half-hidden, telltale pockmarks, and bring back footage to give the government—and the media, if those in power didn’t want to know. Give the disaster-hungry rumormongers the irrefutable proof of what the world didn’t want to know about. Mass graves of the militia’s victims. Like the ones he’d found and filmed in thick forest close to the Albanian border. The ones that still gave him nightmares. The dead faces still wearing looks of terror—begging for help that never came. Pleading for their lives as they were mercilessly gunned down, old and young, women and babies— But not the young girls. They had a worse fate. Damn, I’m getting too old for this. He lowered the plane by the nose through clashing, roiling clouds, until the altimeter hit four thousand feet. No weapon possessed by Tumah-ra’s cheap, gung-ho militia boys could bring him down from this high; but just one photo of an Australian plane here would destroy any chance of a peacekeeping force in Tumah-ra. The recent spy charges against the two Aussie CARE workers in Bosnia left the bloody taste of suspicion in the minds of paranoid dictators. The militia, the real rulers of Tumah-ra now, would jump on their current puppet boys in government to get rid of all international interference, and more innocent people would die. So go in fast, get the shots and fly out faster. But the weather and Tumah-ra’s roughneck terrain shot his ambitions to hell. Lightning flicked around him. Rain pummeled the wings. Wind slapped the plane in the face, jerking it back, up and to the side. Clashing storms between hills, half-torn jungle and the sudden rise of slumbering volcanoes turned the flight into a crazy game of dodge-ball hide-and-seek. What was the bloody use of killing himself, staying at this altitude? He had to drop right down, even if the local crazies started taking potshots at him—and they would if they saw his gray kangaroo mascot on the tail. After East Timor, Aussies were about as welcome in rebel-run Tumah-ra as a dose of black plague. Let ’em try to kill him. He wasn’t about to die now. This was his last Nighthawk mission. With a little smile, he pressed his fingers to his lips and touched the picture taped to the panel. A nearly three-year-old photo of his precious Matt and Luke, the last time he’d seen them. “I’m coming for you, kids. Hang in there. I’m coming home.” Rain pounded on the wings. A clap of thunder hit right over the plane. Down and forward he pitched like a bat out of hell—and another volcano loomed in front of him. “Damn!” He pulled back on the throttle and circled the clouds—and he all but ran into a long hill standing above the streaming jungle like a dank bald head, at an altitude a slingshot could pick off. If some half-baked sniper in the jungle aimed at his fuel tank— But he had to take the risk. For on the eastern end of the hill, half-hidden by a canopy of trees outside the thatched-hut village of Ka-Nin-Put, he found it: the best footage op he would ever get. He pulled on his special goggles, similar to night-vision lenses, so he could see clearly. “Oh, my sweet godfather,” he breathed. It was worth a Pulitzer Prize. The UN would have to send in a peacekeeping force after seeing it. He didn’t want to take the shot—wouldn’t if he had his way—but he had no choice. Circling the hill for the best angle he got a clear view, aimed out the powerful, high-tech digital camera built into the underwing, and started taking footage that the world would soon see. A child standing on the edge of a gaping hole: a rough manmade crater half-filled with broken bodies. She couldn’t be more than four. Her dress was ragged, filthy, hanging from a malnourished body covered in sores and scratches. Mud poured in from the torn lip of the crater as the torrential downpour dissolved the earth around her. She stood still, wailing the same words over and over—probably cries for the dead parents who lay in that hole beneath her. Within minutes she would fall in and join the body count. Where to land? Damn it, why didn’t Anson get him a Harrier, or at least a chopper? A jet or bird could V/STOL—do a vertical short landing and takeoff in almost any weather conditions—in seconds. Even in this tough bush plane, his chances of landing safely were almost zip in this downpour. If the ground collapsed, he’d take the kid out instead of saving her. “Holy Hannah, this is suicide!” But he looped the hill in a mad circle for the approach, like a kamikaze on a death mission. The hill was a strange, bare swathe about a mile long and two hundred feet wide. If the plane were bigger, he’d never be able to land or turn for takeoff. In this rain the only way to do it was to land at the other end and make a run for her, hoping like hell the militia were hiding somewhere out of the insane weather. He patted the console. “C’mon, Bertha, we can do it!” He released the throttle, eased the wheel forward, pulled out the landing gear and flew straight over the child, touching ground a scant twenty-five feet from her. The wheels skidded on the sodden ground. He had only one chance at this. “Work! Come on, Bertha, work!” He pulled back on the throttle, easing the brakes to stop the plane fishtailing. The trees rushed to meet him. He needed turning space—oh, God, Matt and Luke, his precious boys—he couldn’t die now, not when he finally had the chance to have his kids with him again— Then a tire tripped on a lump of rock; Bertha slowed with shocking suddenness, and Mitch hit the brakes too hard in reaction. His body slammed against the wheel; he heard a crack in his lower chest, then felt stabbing, searing pain. Forget the pain. No time to think! He scanned the land. Fifty feet turning space, max. He locked the brakes, grabbed his assault rifle, a coil of rope and ran. With every step more ground dissolved beneath his feet. Holes and jagged cracks appeared. He fell, got up and stumbled on, dragging in ragged breaths of agony. As she saw him, a big-built man in fatigue greens—damn Anson for insisting on the khaki fatigues and dark face paint for jungle cover like the militiamen!—coming at her with a rifle, the child cried, “Ima! Tatay!” and scrambled away. The lip of the crater imploded with the impact, and she toppled into the hole in a shower of mud and rocks. Throwing the rifle back, Mitch dived toward her, landing on the fast-decaying lip. He threw the rope to the wailing child, cowering near a pile of bodies. Dear God, what if this happened to his boys? Had Matt and Luke cried out for help on a forsaken Sydney street after they’d found their mother’s lifeless body? Who had been there for them? “Take it, little darlin’!” Big, almond-shaped eyes looked up at him. Her hands reached out to the rope, then fell. A river of mud showered over her head; she started to sink beneath its weight. “Please, darlin’, let me help you!” he cried desperately. She just stared. Her teeth chattered under the onslaught of cold mud and constant rain. The ground shifted beneath him. He had seconds to gain her trust before they both died. Damn, why hadn’t he learned to speak more than the most basic Tagalog for this mission? But then, those who’d done this to her spoke her native language—they were her own people. “Australia,” he called down, thudding his throbbing, burning chest. “Me. Australian.” She blinked, slipped further. Her head tilted sideways. “I know I don’t look it; my face and hands are painted, and I’ve got brown skin, anyway, God knows from who. But I’m not one of them!” He knew his babbling was downright stupid, since she couldn’t speak English; but he said it again. “I’m not one of them. I’m Australian!” He controlled his voice to as soothing a pitch as she could hear. Yelling wouldn’t make her understand him better if she’d never heard the word; it would only remind her of the half-assed genocidal jerks who’d taken her family from her. The child stared unblinking; then her hand moved to her lips, mimicking eating, a questioning look in those lovely dark eyes. “Yes, darlin’, that’s it. The people who fed you last week!” Cudgeling his brain, he could think of only one way to convince her. He sang, “‘Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.’” She slowly smiled, and started humming the national anthem the Vincent Foundation workers had taught her. Mitch shook the rope. “C’mon, darlin’. Let’s get outta here.” She looked down into the hole. “Ima. Tatay.” A sad little chant; a baby’s farewell. Then, thank God, she grabbed the rope. He half slipped into the hole pulling up even her slight weight. Wrapping the rope around his waist, he crawled back along the crumbling earth, taking her with him inch by excruciating inch. The rain poured down, and the mud kept sliding on top of her, half drowning her tiny body. “Don’t let go of the rope, little darlin’. Hang on!” A sudden scream; Mitch toppled backward with the lack of weight on the rope, and he knew he was out of miracles. Three times, handhold by foothold, he inched back, giving her the rope, moving back. He couldn’t even lean forward far enough to show her how to loop the rope over her wrist; his weight would collapse the hole on her. The fourth time, when he’d all but given up hope, a tiny head appeared above the rim; then her shoulders; then, like giving birth, she slid from the gaping maw headfirst into his hands. He grabbed her, snatched up the rifle and ran for the plane, stumbling through holes, sliding in mud, holding her safely in his arms, taking the falls on his knees and back. Three hundred feet to go—two hundred—one-fifty— A jagged streak of lightning touched ground between him and the Maule. Oh, my God, not now—Matt, Luke, my beautiful boys, I’m so sorry! So damned stupid, taking risks with his life now! But what choice had he? How could he leave this suffering child to die? But the fork of lightning hit water, riding on the stream away from him. “Thank you, God,” he breathed, knowing how close they’d both come to being a charred heap of ash and cinders. He stumbled into the Maule, put the child in the passenger seat and buckled her up. She cringed and whimpered, shivering violently. “It’s okay, little darlin’!” He threw a thermal blanket over her, tucking it in tight. “That’ll keep you warm till we get above this freak-show weather.” He rummaged in his backpack, found a half-eaten Snickers and handed it to her. She stared in amazed delight, then shoveled it into her mouth as if afraid he’d snatch it back. Once she’d swallowed it, she gave him a timid smile. “Go for it, little darlin’. There’s plenty more where that came from. C’mon, let’s sing.” Though he dredged his brain for what few songs he’d learned in his stark childhood, only one came to mind. “D’you know this one? ‘Doh, a deer, a female deer…’” There was only one way to get skyward in this hellhole of lightning, mud and water. The grave. The pit of death, which probably held the kid’s own family, was their only chance at life. If he could get enough speed up, he could use the hole and the falling slope of the hill as a pathetic sort of launching pad. Like a glider, they might just take off. Or not. Only a psychopath would attempt this liftoff…or Mitch McCluskey. He grinned to himself. They won’t believe it, not even at work. Crazy Skydancer does it again. The rain pounded down. The lightning kept streaking in jagged paths all around them. The sound of crashing thunder filled the cockpit. The child screamed, covering her ears. Mitch gritted his teeth and propelled the Maule forward, trying to avoid pits and puddles. The needle moved like a slug around the speedo, but he couldn’t afford to go faster in case he buried them in mud. Twenty-five knots. Forty. Forty-five…halfway down the crumbling runway…62…64…68. Water swirled around the plane in flying fountains from beneath the spinning wheels—but thank God, they kept moving, not digging in deeper in a self-made hole. Moving. Still moving— “Come on, Bertha, we need 79. We can get there!” He patted the console again in grim encouragement as they hit the three-quarter point. Seventy knots. “Come on, baby, we can do it…73…74…” A fickle swirling wind hit the plane in front, propelling the craft up. Mitch pulled the throttle and wheel back, sweat running with rain down his face. “Go, baby. Go!” The plane lifted a bare three feet from the hole, but in the grab of a sudden twister, they jerked skyward. He lost control of the instruments, and they were flung and tossed like salad with the freak winds. Please, God, don’t let us die! Don’t let me die when I’m going home to Matt and Luke. Not when I finally have a chance to see Lissa again. Please, Bertha, just don’t roll! All he could do was hang on and wait. The wind released its captive; the Maule wing-dived groundward. Mitch hit half throttle, sailing with the wind until he found an updraft. He leveled off and climbed above the storm, thanking God for his Air Force training, and for the bizarre twist of fate that had stopped the craft from rolling. He flicked a glance at his tiny charge, wondering at her calm quiet during their life-and-death situation. Cuddled in the thermal blanket, worn-out with cold and shock, she’d fallen asleep. Her chocolate-and-mud-smeared face rested against the door, her matted hair stuck to the handle. “Sleep well, little darlin’. You’re safe now.” He caressed the slimy bob of hair. He turned the craft southwest toward Darwin. He’d done it. The baby girl who’d seen death too young was safe now. So what if he had to face the music over the child’s illegal entry into Australia? That was small potatoes compared with the crazy hell his life had been the past few years since he’d lost the boys. The nightmares that chilled his soul had finally gone. Matt and Luke were alive and safe—and they were with Lissa. Soon, very soon, he would be, too. He’d have his sons with him again, where they belonged—and he’d see Lissa for the first time in twelve years. Delicate, haunting, gray-eyed Lissa with hair like a waterfall of shining honey, an unspeakably gorgeous mouth and a smile as beautiful as the home and hearth he’d never had. He’d ached to see her every single day of the past twelve years. To touch her. Craving the peace of soul he’d only known when he was with her. She was the only woman he’d ever wanted or thought of as becoming his wife. The only woman who’d ever held his heart in her hands. But she was another man’s wife—and not just any man’s wife. She was Tim’s wife. Tim, his one-time best friend, who could offer Lissa everything: a home, a family, a real name. All the things he’d never had and would never have. So somehow, some way, he had to take Matt and Luke and go, walk away from the only woman he’d ever loved—again. Chapter 1 New South Wales, Australia “Somehow I thought I’d find you out here.” A shadow fell over Melissa Carroll as she knelt in the damp earth, hand hoeing the fallow patch of ground, ready to lay the next planting of vegetable seeds. “G’day, Lissa.” Lissa shivered in half-thrilled trepidation. Mitch… After twelve years just the sound of his voice roused so much turbulent emotion in her she felt weak, sick, filled with fears and hopes and dreams forever unspoken. What if he’d only come to take Matt and Luke away—the boys she had known only five months, but now loved as her own? What if that was all he wanted? What if he just thanked her and walked back out of her life, disappearing again, taking her darling boys with him? But the deepest terror of all was Mitch himself. Terror that, after all these years, he could still weave the old Merlin-like power over her soul. Already she could feel the pull. The power of one quiet, complex man, drawing her to him against her will. The boy had wrapped her heart in a darkly glowing, spellbound fascination, holding her in a thrall so deep she’d never truly found her way out. Now that he was a full-grown man, the thought of what he could do to her—heart, body and soul—appalled her. A fear justified by one look at him. No, he hadn’t changed. It was still there: the unspoken intensity of soul, the hint of unleashed power, the invisible hunger—for what, she’d never known—and the old, sweet love, exclusive love, a best friend’s devotion to her alone. It wasn’t the sort of love she would once have given her life to have had, but it was close, oh, so close…. With one look, without even a touch, she was chained again, shackled to him with a wanting she couldn’t conquer or deny. It had nothing to do with his looks, though he was so beautiful to look at he almost blinded her. Tall and strong, with deep, fathomless chocolate eyes, dark-olive skin and careless black curls. Though Mitch knew none of his forefathers, they must have been a big, bronzed race. He was so tall he dwarfed most men, big built and tightly muscled. From the first moment she’d seen him working their neighbor’s farm seventeen years before, he’d robbed her of breath with his stormy male beauty. From the moment they’d met, he’d haunted her with the shadows of unspoken secrets in his eyes, half-shuttered windows to a turbulent soul. Boy to girl, man to woman, nothing changed. Even now, after half a lifetime apart, he still took her breath away, still made her hunger for more. Always haunting her, even long after he was gone: invisible whispers to her soul by day, her restless warrior walking with her by night in the dark grace of sensual dreams unending and unfulfilled. And now he was here. Achingly familiar yet so long gone. Almost within reach, yet so far away; too much and never enough. And still she ached for him. He spoke again, his voice warm with laughter. “You can’t be that shocked to see me. You knew I’d come. Don’t you have any words of welcome for me?” She gulped a second time and forced her frozen vocal cords to work. “Yeah—you took your sweet time getting home, McCluskey. That must’ve been some mission the Air Force gave you to keep you away twelve years.” She pushed her hat back, squinting up at him in the heat of the late-summer sun. He was smiling down at her. The affection in his eyes warmed and yet hurt her somewhere deep inside, for he was still closed off from her, by just being Mitch. Mitch, the dark, dreaming rebel, whom she’d always known would have so much more to his life than this sleepy little west-of-the-mountains backwater had to give…far more than a plain farmer’s daughter had inside her to give. But, oh, it never stopped her dreams…. She’d dreamed of seeing him again, hungered for him through the long, burning years of a loneliness born of never being alone—the internal isolation that so many people filled with the faces of strangers. She’d never been able to do it, aching for one face only; yet now that he was here at last, she wanted him to go. Go and leave her in peace, without the tumultuous upheaval in her heart and soul caused by just knowing he stood near her. “Sorry, Liss—the brass sent me out again right after East Timor. I gave notice as soon as I could. I’m on three months’ leave at the moment until I set myself up in a business. I figured Matt and Luke would need me full-time for a while.” Just his voice, lush like rumpled dark silk, filled her with daydreams of sensuous hot nights in satin sheets—dreams she could never fulfil in real life. Which was why she always let the kids answer the phone Sunday nights when he would call from East Timor to talk to them. And when he asked to speak to her, she’d keep it to a minimum. Just talking brought to life desires and needs she’d fought long and hard to banish. He held out a hand to her. She allowed him to lift her to her feet, feeling somehow small and feminine in her dirty paint-marked shorts and tank top. Even through her gardening glove she could feel the heat burning inside him that he always kept guarded from her. Just one touch and she trembled. Her pulse pounded so hard she could feel her throat quiver…and for the first time in twelve years she remembered she was a woman. “I see you’ve still got your patch of earth to till, Farmer Annie.” She grinned at him from beneath the shade of her hat, trying for normality. “Can you imagine me without it?” “Nope. Never. Through the years, when I’ve imagined meeting you again, it was always out here. It was where we always got together—your land or Old Man Taggart’s, didn’t matter. It was our place, and it was us.” The gentle smile softened his strong, masculine face, sending warm shivers down her spine. “It’s been a long time, Lissa. Too long.” “Twelve years.” “You barely look any older. And the farm…” He looked around the Miller family’s side of the fence, its drenched greenness dreaming in the soft silver haze of a warm February sun. “It’s like time froze here. It’s all the same. Serene and beautiful.” “Changes happen everywhere, Mitch.” She pulled off her dirt-encrusted gardening gloves, checking her hands to make sure they weren’t shaking. “Even in sleepy little towns like Breckerville it happens—like under a microscope, beneath the surface where you can’t see it…” Stop babbling, Lissa. He smiled at her in tender reassurance, as if sensing her internal monologue. “Some things have changed if Lissa Miller doesn’t give a friend a hug.” “It’s Carroll now, remember?” she whispered, knowing he didn’t need the reminder but needing to give it. Needing to recall the reasons why she shouldn’t touch him, start up the old merry-go-round of anguished yearnings and unrequited love. “You’ll always be Lissa Miller to me.” With a small, tilted smile and darkened eyes, he opened his arms to her. “Come here.” Aching, terrified—unable to resist, or deny him—she walked into his arms. He held her close, just as he did years ago, in the days of their innocence, resting his chin on her hair. “It’s been so long since I held you. Too long. I never stopped missing you, Lissa.” She held him close against her, filled with warmth and beauty and long-forbidden desire, just from his holding her. Loving it and hating it. Needing to push him away, yet never wanting to let go. Wanting more. Always wanting more when it came to Mitch. Loving him too much, wanting him too much, knowing it had never been that way for him. Dreams and fantasies of pushing her hands beneath his shirt, finding that glorious summer-heated maleness beneath— “You could have come to visit,” she whispered. “You know why I didn’t.” The scene at her wedding. She suppressed a shudder. Tim Carroll, her brand-new husband, in the grip of the sudden and shocking aggression that comes from being roaring drunk for the first time. Throwing Mitch, his best man and longtime closest friend, out of the reception hall and out of their lives. Okay, so Mitch had been a little drunk, too. More than a little. So he’d watched her every move that night, in a tense, brooding stance that made her shiver…but not with fear. And so what if he’d chosen to speak about the beautiful bride instead of the bridesmaids, and how much he loved her? It was no secret how close Mitch was to the girl next door who’d married his best friend. It was anyone’s guess why Tim suddenly got to his feet in the middle of the speech and threw Mitch out. Everyone knew Mitch’s story: the bounced foster kid taken in by a dour, old, widowed farmer, who only tolerated him for manual labor. Mitch never had any family of his own, no one to love him or care for him until he’d come to Breckerville. Which was why Tim’s act, in the middle of his own wedding, in front of all their friends, seemed so cruel and inexplicable. The mystery of Mitch McCluskey’s dramatic and permanent exit from town was still an occasional topic for speculation and gossip. As was Tim’s less flamboyant exit from town. Less visual, but no less dramatic. Lissa wished she didn’t know the reason for Tim’s lashing out at his best friend. And she’d never tell Mitch—not about the wedding nor about why Tim left her. How could she tell him that Tim, her husband— No, it was impossible. Just as anything but friendship between them was impossible, now and forever. If she’d ever worked up the courage to tell him how she’d felt before she married Tim…but marriage to Tim had changed everything—her innocence, her belief in love…her belief in herself. It was all gone. “How are the boys?” Mitch asked now, as if he knew she wanted the subject changed. She relaxed against him, then pulled away. Don’t think. Don’t feel. “They’re wonderful. They turned nine a month ago.” “I wish I’d been here.” He tipped her chin up, searching her face with a tender gaze. “Thank you for taking them in after the police notified me they’d finally found them. They didn’t go into the foster system, thanks to you. You don’t know what it means to me.” He bit down a smile, taking her face in his hands. “Dumb remark. You know better than anyone what it means to me.” He leaned forward, softly brushing her mouth with his. “Thank you, my beautiful, generous-hearted Lissa, for everything you’ve done. For them. For me. Thank you. Thank you.” She couldn’t control the quiver that ran through her at the words, at the touch. He’d called her beautiful… And for the first time his mouth had touched hers. Once, only once before had he come close, and, as things had always been between them, it was too little and years too late. In the kitchen of her parents’ house. He’d given her a locket for her seventeenth birthday—a year after she’d started dating Tim, his best friend. A candy-pink enamel-and-gold heart-shaped locket, a cheap, bargain-store replica of the one Gilbert gave to Anne of Green Gables. Unable to believe he’d remembered, let alone respected her little dream, her sweet, foolish dream that she’d find her own Gilbert and receive her own locket of love. He’d used what little money he had to fulfil it. She’d thrown her arms around him and reached up to kiss his cheek. He turned his face to hers, whispering huskily, “Lissa, don’t you know I—” He’d searched her eyes for an intense moment, and she knew that all the yearning in her heart for his kiss must be clear to see, shining like a beacon in the night. Slowly he’d lowered his mouth to hers as she waited, breathless and hungry for the touch…. Then Tim’s laughing voice sounded outside the room, and they sprang apart like guilty lovers. Neither of them could bring themselves to hurt Tim, his best mate and her boyfriend. Oh, how she’d wished, in the long, cold years after her birthday night, that she’d had that kiss before it was too late. But too late had come and gone years ago. She’d lost her innocence too young. She’d learned cynicism too well. Even if by some miracle Mitch wanted her—and why would he?—she knew exactly what she was. Not enough for any man. With a smile she knew trembled, she backed off. “Still full of blarney, McCluskey? You must have had a touch of Irish in you.” She swept a hand over her grubby gardening attire, the battered straw hat perched atop her simple ponytail. “I’ve lived in this face and body thirty-one years. I know what I am.” His gaze never wavered. “I can’t speak pretty words, Lissa. I only speak what I know.” Stepping forward, he tipped her face up with a finger. “You were a sweet, pretty girl when I knew you before. Now you’re a beautiful woman, with a heart as gentle and lovely as your face.” She trembled even at his simplest touch; the tiny flare of forbidden heat came alive, warming her shivering soul, making her stupid dreamer’s heart wonder if maybe, finally— Fool! She had to break contact. Now. She stepped back so fast she almost fell into the aubergines. “You can’t know what I’m like now. You haven’t seen me in twelve years. Times change, people change. I’m not the girl you knew.” Again Mitch allowed her withdrawal, his gaze following her, dark and brooding; yet his words held the simplicity of faith. “You took my boys in when they were in trouble. You went to Sydney for them, brought them home and kept them safe here when I couldn’t leave East Timor. That’s the Lissa I knew I could trust with my sons—and you came through. For them. For me. And that makes you more beautiful to me than any supermodel could be.” “Yep. The perennial nice girl next door. That’s me,” she said blithely, hiding the strain of bitterness beneath the words. “Everyone’s best friend and little sister, who always comes to the rescue. Good old reliable Lissa.” A short silence, as if he weighed his words. Then he spoke, his deep, rumpled voice speaking his unique brand of blunt truth. “You’ve always been a ‘nice girl,’ you did live next door, and yes, I’ve relied on you—but from the moment we met, I’ve never thought of you as my sister, Lissa. Not once. Not ever.” She couldn’t breathe. Her gaze felt pinned by his, trapped by the power of words she’d never dreamed of hearing from Mitch McCluskey, the beautiful, dark-hearted rebel who was always going to fly away from this hick town. “How…how did you think of me?” Then she swung toward the house, her face burning. “No. Don’t answer that. Would you like coffee? The boys will be home from school in about twenty minutes, and Jenny—” “Are you frightened of me?” The question halted her midstride. Slowly she turned back to him, trembling, needing, ashamed. She didn’t want to say it, but she’d never lied to Mitch; she’d only kept secrets. She met his gaze, hers filled with unflinching honesty. “Terrified,” she said softly. His hands, reaching out to her arms, dropped. “I hoped it was only him who’d wanted me to go that day. I’d hoped you at least still trusted me.” “I do!” she cried. “I do, Mitch…but I—” She floundered, biting her lip. Haunted by past pain, hemmed in by secrets, by the fear and self-hate that walked beside and inside her, night and day. “It’s just that I— Oh, I can’t explain…but it’s not you,” she finished lamely. “I see.” His face twisted. “That’s why you keep moving away from me like I’m a monster.” The pain in his eyes found an echo in her soul. Mitch, oh, Mitch, I wish it didn’t have to be like this! She owed him the truth. She knew what his life had been before they met, how few people he cared for or trusted since living through the foster system. But he trusted her. “I learned a long time ago not to believe in everything Tim said or did,” she said, giving him what truth she could. “I never wanted him to say those things to you. I didn’t want you to go out of our lives like that. I’m glad you’re here now. The boys have missed you so much.” “Thanks for that.” He nodded, as if thinking of something else. “What time does Tim come home from work?” His voice was slow, thoughtful. “I—” She blinked. “What did you say?” His brow lifted. “It’s a simple question, Lissa. What time does your husband come home from work?” Without warning everything shifted focus. She felt dizzy, disoriented, as though she’d stepped back in time to a strange new world where only one truth made sense. Mitch didn’t know. Blinking to clear her mind of the unexpected turmoil, she tried to speak, but it came out a harsh croak. “Tim left me six years ago.” Mitch staggered back, as if she’d decked him. “What?” She shrugged, seeing no need to repeat herself. “You’re divorced?” He watched her with an intense gaze, as if trying to make sense of a simple fact. Waiting for her to deny what he’d just heard. “You’re free?” Lissa flinched. Oh, how she hated the word divorce. It was a word unheard of in the Miller family—until Tim walked out, left her for— “Yes.” Obviously, he’d seen her expression. He’d been looking at her with all his brooding intensity. “Do you ever see him now?” “Of course,” she answered, relieved at the change in subject. “He comes to see Jenny, our daughter. She’s five.” “Did he leave you for someone else?” The question was as grim as the look in his eyes. She dragged in a breath. At least she could answer that question honestly. “Yes.” “He left when you were pregnant with his child.” Unable to look at him, she nodded. If he knew the truth— “Damn it. I’m going to kill him.” She blurted without thinking, “How is it any different from you? It’s exactly what you did to Matt and Luke’s mother—except you didn’t even bother to marry her before you did your runner!” She clapped a hand to her mouth, horrified by the burst of anger she hadn’t even seen coming, destructive fury born of twisted jealousy. “I-I’m sorry, Mitch. It’s none of my business.” Another short, uncomfortable silence, the words he didn’t say hanging in the air between them. “I could do with a coffee, if that’s all right.” “O-of course.” She led the way into the old weatherboard farmhouse, shaking so bad she could barely use her hands to hang her hat and gloves on a hook on the verandah. Mitch walked in without waiting for an invitation—but then, he knew he didn’t need one. The Miller farm had been his only real home in all his life. Her parents had become like his own, and he, their son. For a little while. Until Tim stepped in and she’d ruined it all by giving in to a girl’s temptation to have a boyfriend—any boyfriend. Fool! “The place has changed a bit.” He surveyed the big, open country kitchen, soft and mellow, honey and gold toned beneath the flooding sunshine of the skylight. “It was darker before.” “When my parents retired three years ago I bought them out. I sold four hundred acres to the Brownells, keeping just the fifty around the house to grow fruit and vegetables. Mum and Dad live in a cottage by the ocean. They’re in Europe at the moment; Dad wanted to see the Formula One. Anyway, since it’s my place now, I did up the parts I didn’t like. I felt oppressed by the dark floor and bench tops.” She filled the filter with coffee. “I like natural floorboards. I did something similar to my place in Bondi before I sold it. It was too gloomy.” “Where do you live now?” A second’s hesitation, then he said slowly, “I live here.” The jug of water slipped in her hands, spilling over the bench. “Here?” “Yes, here in Breckerville. I’m buying a place. Let me help you.” He stepped forward, grabbing a towel to dry the mess. He’d always been like that. Always wanting to help her, always close to her. Just never close enough. Always the best friend she’d ever had, never the lover she craved. Tears of helpless confusion filled her eyes. “I can do it.” She snatched the towel from him, hiding her face. Again she felt his gaze on her, sensing her quiet despair. Gentle as a whispering breeze he touched her cheek, turning her face to his. “Don’t be sorry about what you said, Lissa. Don’t ever be scared to speak your mind to me.” Unable to stop herself, she drank in the dark, rebellious face whose memory still walked the land outside her window, whose essence still haunted her dreams inside the windows of her soul. “But I am sorry,” she whispered, lowering her gaze. Though she couldn’t see him, she could feel the warmth of his gaze on her. “Liss, you know how I feel about my father walking out on my mother when she was pregnant with me, her dumping me at the church steps because she had nowhere to go. Can you honestly see me walking out on a woman having my kids, like I didn’t care that she, or they, might have the life I had before I met you?” Shamed, appalled by her unthinking judgment, she whispered, “Tim did.” “No, baby,” he answered gently. “No man who knows you at all would ever think you could abandon your child, like my mother did to me. But he hurt you. You loved him, trusted him, and he hurt you. He left you when you needed him the most.” His voice was so warm, so tender. He cared for her, and she was answering him with half-truths. But how could she tell him the truth about her marriage? “Yes. Yes, he did.” Well, that much was truth. Tim had left her, the only time she’d needed him. “Where does he live now?” Hearing the note of grim promise, she felt seventeen again. Mitch had always pounded Tim when he thought his friend wasn’t treating her right. “Not for my sake, Mitch,” she said with a shy, half-hidden smile. “He’s Jenny’s father.” Quietly he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me any of this when I asked you to take the boys? My God, if I’d known you were alone, running this farm, a single mother—” “Which is why I didn’t tell you. Matt and Luke needed a home and a family, after what happened with Kerin.” She refilled the jug and set the coffee going. “So I hear you made lieutenant in the Air Force, fly-boy McCluskey.” “Squadron leader, actually. I would have made it my career, but the boys need me home more than the life can give.” She glanced at him as she poured the coffee, afraid to ask the obvious question. “So what are your plans? Are you still going to work with planes?” He leaned against the counter, watching her as if refreshing his eyes with her face—just her face. “I’m setting up a country-based courier business here. I have two planes, as well as a Maule bush plane I keep for fun, and I do aid drops for the Vincent Foundation every once in a while.” She grinned. “Don’t tell me, I’m-Gonna-Save-the-World-Rebel McCluskey. You do all the runs for kids in crisis, and you’ve risked your neck to save a few.” Mitch laughed at the perception of old friendship. Oh, yeah, she still knew him all right—better than any other woman ever had, or would. He could no more turn down a kid in need of help than he could live without flying—but she, so protected and innocent, would never understand his new, hidden work. Just as well she didn’t know he’d left the Air Force for the Nighthawks almost two years ago; that his usual job description entailed flying over and into the world’s war zones to smuggle out captives and civilians unwittingly locked inside the unstated boundaries of heated battle. As for his adventure in Tumah-ra, and its potential repercussions with little Hana, if he couldn’t—no. There was no way he’d tell her; he didn’t want to shock her. But lying to Lissa had never been an option. He grinned and said, “Guilty as charged.” She grinned in response, and the sweet warmth of it fired his soul, as well as more intimate places. “You haven’t changed a bit. Still the world’s softest touch for a kid in need.” She bit her lip and shoved him his coffee mug over the counter. He didn’t touch it, barely noticed it. He knew he was staring at her, but he couldn’t stop. She’d changed from the fragile, hauntingly lovely woman-child who’d married his best mate at nineteen. She’d filled out, matured. She held herself with a quaint, unconscious dignity, standing aloof from the hedonistic angst of the world. But she still had the incredible mouth that made men thank God He made women—and she wore the same unique scent of sunshine and earth and grass and a touch of something wilder, sweeter beneath. Just like Lissa herself—a heady mixture of natural, glowing sensuality and sweet, untouchable purity. Lines touched her face, marks of the woman’s rite of passage: the strength and beauty of pain of childbirth and motherhood, the stress of unspoken sorrow and abandonment. God, she was beyond beautiful now, but in a way that almost hurt him to look. She was a fairy-tale heroine straight from the mind of the brothers Grimm: a shackled maiden lost in the forest. A figurehead carving they put on the bow of old ships, like the Flying Dutchman. Forever sailing on, standing at the front of a boat flying unstoppably through a world and time she had no control over. Beautiful and cold, so untouchably cold. In those eyes of sweet country mist, shadows ran rampant. Shades of fear. Specters of isolation and emptiness. As they did in her heart. The ghosts of the past owned her soul. But she was free of Tim—which was a greater miracle than any he’d hoped for—and he’d take her any way he could have her. And he would have her. He’d fight for her with everything he had in him, every ounce of strength and skill he’d learned. He’d fight clean if he could, dirty if he had to. This time no man was coming between them. He had to force himself to answer her teasing in the same light vein. “So I’m obsessed with saving kids? Says she who took my kids in for the past five months, no questions asked.” She stilled, looking anywhere but at him. “Are you going to take the boys away from me?” He stared at her, shocked by the question, by the way her sweet eyes wouldn’t meet his. Damn it, he should have known it would come to this; but be hadn’t thought it through, thinking she was Tim’s wife. “You don’t want them to go.” It wasn’t a question. “Lissa, surely you know I’d—” “We love them, Mitch,” she blurted, staring hard at the creamy-tiled wall with hand-painted diamond tiles interspersing the plain squares. “They’ve become my sons, Jenny’s big brothers. They had their troubles when they came. I expected it after the way Kerin died. But it’s settling down. They’re happy here…they have a home and family. They need family stability, Mitch, and they love us, Jenny and me—” She turned to him, pleading in the depths of her pretty eyes. “Please don’t take them away from me.” Quick as a flash, he made up his mind. “I knew they’d love you, Lissa, and I knew you’d love them. I counted on it. Which is why I came back here to live.” She kept her gaze on him, eyes wide, pupils dilated. Filled with half-scared questions only he had answers to. “Matt and Luke need a mother,” he said quietly, formulating his plans with the lightning speed of a man trained to think on his feet, or in the cockpit. “One who’ll be more loving, more stable than Kerin could ever have been. And no woman could be more loving, more stable than you. I know that from experience.” He watched the soft rose flush fill her cheeks, and ached with the need her fresh, countrygirl beauty always set off in him. The need to hold her, run his hands through that shining honey-gold waterfall of hair, touch her silky, golden-brown skin. Shed her clothes and kiss every secret part of her until she was glowing in her earthy sensuality and crying out in pleasure for him— Oh, how he ached to make her his. But the only emotion she’d shown at all so far was for his kids. When he spoke again, his voice was harsh with the strain of his never-ending craving for her. “I’ve had constant nightmares since Kerin took off with the kids from school—horrifying visions they’d end up in places I’ve been. But when you said you’d take them, the fear died. I knew you’d love my kids as your own. I trusted you to keep them safe. I can’t take them away from here, from the only real family and mother they’ve known.” Lissa sagged, gripping the counter for support, white-faced and shaking. Her knuckles were transparent to the bone. “I’ve been so scared you’d take them from me,” she whispered. “I think I’d want to die if I lost them now.” Oh, bloody hell. He should have seen this coming, should have known his girl wouldn’t just care for Matt and Luke, or love them simply—simple just wasn’t in her nature. She’d taken his sons right into her heart, and she’d hold on to the love with all the tenacious, desperate strength her delicate frame belied. Just as she’d once done with him. And while he’d half-counted on that, it made telling her his plans a whole hell of a lot harder. But then, nothing was ever simple between him and Lissa. Ever. Not even the unspoken burning in his gut for her. Especially not that. He drew in a breath. “But I can’t just leave them behind. They’re my sons, and I love them.” He touched her arm to keep contact with her warmth; he felt so cold with fear, his teeth almost chattered. “You know me, Lissa. You know how I’ve always wanted to be part of a family. I’ve come home to find my family.” Her eyes fixed on his face, filled with trepidation. Anguish. And, though he hunted as deeply as he dared, he couldn’t see a trace of the longing that filled him for her, body, heart and soul. “What are you saying?” He dragged in a breath. “I’m saying I’m home to stay. I want a family—and that includes you and Jenny. If you’ll have me.” He took her hands in his, feeling like a drowning man holding on to a lifeline—and he finally said the words he’d been holding in since the girl he loved started dating his best friend fifteen years before. “Marry me, Lissa.” Chapter 2 “Wh-what?” It wasn’t exactly the answer Mitch hoped for. Nor was the look on her face. Surprised, yes. Stunned, maybe. Joyful, beyond his dreams. But the one look he hadn’t expected from her was that of a fawn he’d just shot. Stricken. Bewildered. Betrayed. So much for dreams and half-hidden hopes. He’d done it again. What a fool. What a heel. The world’s biggest jerk. Come home after twelve years, make conversation for five minutes and what did he do? Propose to her! He shouldn’t have blurted it out like that. He should have taken it slow, courted her with care; but no, he’d gone at her like a bull at a gate, let the dam break—and all he’d accomplished was to shock and confuse her. He had no option but to go on with it now. He had to try to repair the damage he’d caused. “Think about it, Lissa. It’s the perfect solution for us all.” She whitened and her eyes went dark like a lamp shattered by stones, bloodless and cold and broken. “No.” She tugged until he released her hands; she stumbled away from him, her breaths harsh and heaving, like she was trying not to throw up. “Don’t say it again,” she finally muttered. “Not ever!” “Lissa—” “I said no.” She flung up a hand between them. It was small and delicate, like Lissa herself—yet because it shook so hard, it was as effective a barrier as bricks and mortar, halting his advance. She turned her back on him, picking up her mug, sloshing coffee on the counter as she took unsteady swigs. “The kids will be home from school soon.” She spoke as if nothing had happened. “Matt and Luke will be so happy to see you—but expect hostility from Jenny. She loves her brothers. We’re a family.” The implication was clear: And we don’t need you. Mitch dragged in a breath, seeing his life’s dream besides flying planes crumbling before his eyes. To him Lissa always had, always would, represent everything good and right and decent in the world. All that was beautiful and precious in his eyes lived and breathed here in Breckerville, on a sleepy verdant farm and in a pair of gentle gray eyes, a mouth made to love his body and a heart that had never known what boundaries were. Except in this, obviously. God, oh, God, he’d lost her. She didn’t love him. Didn’t want him. Not even to keep his kids—kids she obviously did love. “Won’t you even think about it?” “I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want a ‘perfect solution’ to a problem I didn’t know I had!” Spitting the words out like epithets, she swiveled around to face him, her face filled with burning wrath. “You’ve been gone over twelve years, and in all that time, I never get a thing. No word, no call, no letter. I didn’t know if you were alive or dead until you needed my help with Matt and Luke. Now you waltz home after almost half a lifetime away and tell me you want to get married, just like that.” She snapped her fingers, her eyes flashing. “I’m not a dog you can call to heel, Mitch McCluskey.” He bit the inside of his mouth. Somewhere along the line, his gentle Lissa had grown feisty. She’d squared up to him like Mike Tyson in a prematch slanging bout. What the hell had he said to make her quiver with fury like that? “I’m sorry.” He stumbled over the long-unused word, jerking a hand through his hair, and cursed when it caught in his tangled curls. “I hated leaving you. I’ve missed you like crazy the whole time I’ve been gone. Not a day’s passed when I didn’t think about you, want to see you, call or write—but Tim made his feelings pretty final.” “But I didn’t,” she snarled, startling him with the vivid passion in her face. “You just left me—left us both behind. You knew how much Tim cared about you. Surely you knew he’d regret what he’d done when he was sober? And he did, Mitch—but we both thought you’d come back. And how do you think I felt, waiting day after day for a call or letter to know you were safe? I had to call the Air Force a year later to make sure you were alive!” She whirled on him again, a delicate china tigress, even her sheathed and painted claws ripping his heart to shreds. “I loved you, damn it. You knew I’d worry myself sick about you, and you never once bothered to let me know you were alive and all right!” “I knew. You and Tim were the only two people on God’s earth I was sure cared about me.” He turned aside, looking out the window to the vista of shimmering, sun-drenched fields he’d loved from first sight, seventeen years before. Breckerville and Lissa. The only sense of belonging he’d ever had; the only place he ever felt at home, at peace, where the tempests roaring inside him calmed like the waters of the Jordan at a word from the Messiah. “But when he did that to me right in front of the whole town, and you didn’t stop him, I didn’t know what to think. Sure I was out of line with the speech about you. I was stupid, jealous of what you two had, and more than a bit drunk, I’ll admit it—but I’d forgiven him far worse. Did he ever tell you why?” Her voice came to him, strained. Hiding secrets. Hers or Tim’s? “I think that’s something he’ll have to tell you himself.” So she was still loyal to Tim, even after all he’d done to her. He held the sigh in. The path he’d finally hoped clear was far from smooth. Mitch the dreamer strikes again—shot down as usual by the Red Baron of reality. “Where does he live now?” “Sydney. Ashfield. He owns and runs a gym near the city with a partner. He comes up here every second weekend to see Jenny. Sometimes during the week, too, depending on his schedule. He’s become a father figure to the boys in the past five months. He takes the kids to football games, plays with them, helps them with school projects. Things like that.” He turned to her, but she’d averted her face. She was talking too much. Lissa always did that when she was scared, or hiding something. “Does he stay here?” “Yes.” She fiddled with the cloth on the counter. Waiting for the question. He knew it. He sensed the pot boiling inside her, the potent stew of dread and anger, daring him to speak. Like a fool, he plunged on. He couldn’t stop the gut-deep jealousy eating at him, clawing with the sharp-edged talons of Iago’s cunning. “In your bedroom?” he rasped. Like a flash she turned on him. “And who’s been in your bed lately, Mitch? Who’s filled your lonely nights the past twelve years? How many times have you sunk to doing things you hate so you’re not alone, even for a few hours?” He’d expected her to shove the question back in his face, but not with such raw intensity. Oh, yeah, she’d walked his path, if from the other side of the fence. He understood that loneliness. The darkness of nights filled with aching. The sunrises and sunsets over concrete and stone, standing alone in a city of four million people, that city not where you ached to be, none of those people the one you hungered to be with. Even when he was on a mission, even when he’d saved someone’s life, it only patched over the gap for a few hours, before the gut-gnawing voracious need for home and family and Lissa. Dear God, how he’d ached for her; a devouring need to sink inside her, lose his pain in her smile, her arms and welcoming body forever left the wound open again, savage and unhealed and bleeding. He’d learned long ago how to live alone. Taking another woman to his bed or hers—even women who knew the score—had only ever intensified the loneliness, the anguished yearning. An hour, a minute of mind-numbing forgetfulness nowhere near compensated for weeks of self-hate, using a woman as a replacement for the only woman he’d ever truly wanted. Kerin’s fall from grace completed the lesson forever. He’d used her in his unhealed grief for Lissa, taken Kerin’s eager smile and giving sexuality as a shallow replacement for real love, and discovered too late the abyss of unbalanced emotion that lay beneath. But by then, she was pregnant with his children, and leaving her wasn’t an option. But now Kerin was gone, Lissa was free—and his heart and body, primed and hard all day, thudded till the pounding need roared in his ears, reminding him they’d been starved way too long. In his whole life he’d never known love the way Lissa used to give love to him. She sneaked him food when Old Man Taggart left him hungry again. She helped him with his homework, even did it for him when he didn’t have time. She sat and talked to him by the pond that joined their farms when the sun went down—the loneliest time for him, when families gathered around the tables to be with their kids—often giving up her own family time to be with him. She’d listened to him as he talked about his hopes and dreams for the future, and confided hers to him. Sweet Lissa Miller of the popular crowd at school really cared about unknown, unimportant Mitch McCluskey. She worried about him, fussed over him, poured her heart and soul’s care over him until he’d swum in it, drowned in it, lived and breathed the love filling him. Even when she started dating Tim—damn Tim for asking her to their formal first!—Mitch never felt less than special, less than loved by her, even when he’d been jealous enough to murder Tim when he touched her, kissed her. Even now the memory had the power to make him burn. How could he feel so much, hurt so much, and she not know it? Deep inside, he’d always known this sort of love only came to a man once in a lifetime. He’d learned long ago that to have another woman in his arms and bed was nothing more than an empty cheat, fool’s gold, a poor substitute for what he wanted. To have and to hold the woman he loved, forever. To have, not just her body, but her trust, her joy and pain, to grow old beside her at the place they loved best. To love and be loved in return. And if he’d been the one to marry Lissa he’d never have walked out, never left her. He’d have loved her forever, kept that innocent joy glowing from her eyes—eyes now filled with the cloudy shadows of suffering and rejection. Suffering Tim had put there. Shadows he’d have to erase before she’d even consider his proposal. Why had he ever stood aside for Tim? Why didn’t he ever tell Lissa how much he wanted to be the one? Never a time, never a place, he’d always thought. But the simple truth filled him with self-contempt. Because you were a bloody coward, always terrified she’d say she only loved you like a sister. Too scared you wouldn’t be enough for a girl like her. He still was. He, who regularly looked death in the face, was too scared to look into the eyes of a delicate, five-foot-four woman and tell her he loved her. If only Tim hadn’t walked in on them on her seventeenth birthday—but Tim had. And then he’d had to walk away. Tim had a home, a life, security—a family to offer Lissa. He, Mitch, didn’t even have a real name to give, just the minister’s surname from the church steps his mother had dumped him on as a newborn. He was a hooker’s unwanted bastard, pushed from place to place all his life, a worker begrudged even the basics of life, like food or affection. How could he ever think she’d love someone like him, beyond the miracle of her friendship? “Mum!” At the other end of the house, a door slammed once, twice. “Hey, Mum, you shoulda seen this cool girl-fight—” Matt ran in, saw him, gaped and yelled, “Daaad!” “Dad?” Luke came flying in. “Dad! Oh, Dad, you came!” Within seconds two blurs cannoned into him. He staggered back, laughing. He hitched them up in his arms, feeling the identical little heads snuggle into either side of his neck. Matt and Luke. His boys. His beautiful, precious sons. So like him, and so alike few could tell them apart—but they were his kids. He would know Matt from Luke any time. “Of course I came, matey. You knew I would, as soon as I got off my tour.” Matt pulled back, looking at the father he closely resembled, with a solemn frown. “Kerin’s dead, Dad.” His heart ached for the boys who’d never called their own mother Mum. “I know.” “She topped herself on crack,” Luke added. He shook with the primitive fury he still hadn’t conquered, even after her death. Damn Kerin for her paltry revenge on him, making the kids suffer! No nine-year-old boy should know what topping meant, let alone crack—and little guys of eight should never have to find their mother’s body with the empty crack pipe hanging out of her mouth. “I know, mate.” Luke’s gaze was anxious. “We didn’t want to go with her. We didn’t want to steal your stuff, Dad—it was Kerin.” Mitch kissed his son’s hair. “I know, mate. I knew it wasn’t you.” Just Kerin paying for her bloody drugs. Trying to hit out at me any way she could. Needing someone to blame for her life. “What took you so long to get here, Dad? Mum said you’d be here in a few weeks, an’ we waited an’ waited—” So it’s Mum already. Oh, yeah, taking the risk of calling Lissa when Nick told him he’d found Matt and Luke had paid off all right. He knew Lissa’s gift of healing hearts—he’d been a recipient of the same loving treatment. And now his kids had that same total love, the unconditional support, he’d once had. Then it hit him: they’d forgotten Kerin already. They told him about her death like an item they’d watched on the news, only anxious to know he didn’t blame them for anything Kerin did. His gaze met Lissa’s. She nodded and touched her finger to her lips. Counselor, she mouthed. He’d never wanted to kiss her more than now. The love he’d counted on for so long was there for his sons. She knew what his fear had been, the shadows of old ghosts still stalking him, and she’d led him to the sunlight with a single word. She wasn’t fostering Matt and Luke. His boys were loved, an integral part of her family. His heart whispered in delicate hope, She did it for me. He couldn’t fool himself for long. Lissa, his lovely, open-hearted girl, would have done the same for any child in need. As she’d done for him once—until he blew it. Thank you, he mouthed back. “Sorry, kids. I couldn’t get away from work,” he answered Matt’s question. “The brass wouldn’t let me off until yesterday. I couldn’t even quit a day early.” Luke’s mouth twisted. “Cityfellas.” Mitch chuckled and ruffled his son’s tousled mop of curls. “I see Lissa’s been passing on some of her ideas about the city. She used to call me that, until I’d been here a year or two.” He grinned at her. As a kid, he’d loved the way she’d called him Cityfella, poking her tongue out, wrinkling her nose in cute teasing. There was never any malice intended, no offence taken. Being a cityfella had given him the sort of glamorous mystique he’d never had as a plain unwanted foster kid—and it gave him undivided attention from the girl whose angel-faerie face haunted his dreams, night and day. Lissa’s smile was slow in coming, but when it did, her soft, dove-gray eyes twinkled. She bit her lip, then poked her tongue out and wrinkled her nose. “You still stink with it—cityfella.” She snorted. “Buying a house at Bondi Beach. What a yuppie!” Matt wriggled. “Wanna come see our room, Dad? It’s mega cool. It’s got pics of Mick Doohan and Wayne Gardner—” Luke jumped off Mitch’s hip. “And Luke Longley, Andrew Gaze, Michael Jordan and the Shaq—” He laughed. “I see you two are as alike as ever.” The boys grinned. “Basketball. Kids’ stuff,” Matt snorted. “Who’d wanna waste time playin’ with balls, just runnin’ up and down and dribbling, when you can burn rubber at 220 an hour?” “Bikes are all right, I s’pose,” Luke retorted with lofty condescension, “but I’d drink the grog if I won. Who wants the good stuff poured all over your head?” “Hey, mithter, do you like Barbieth?” Belatedly, Mitch noticed someone was tugging at his shirt. He looked down to the source of the little, lisping voice. Oh, dear God. Living proof of Tim and Lissa’s love. A sweet sprite gazed hopefully at him, a child with Tim’s riotous blond curls and an angel’s face. Lissa’s face. “You must be Jenny.” Jenny rolled her eyes, reminiscent of her mother. “Mithter, I thaid, do you like Barbieth?” Oh, yeah, this was Lissa’s daughter all right—with her one-track mind. The boys were sniggering already. “Watch out, or she’ll get you into the dollhouse.” Jenny’s brow lifted; she stared Matt down, her childish lisp adorable and impatient. “You play with me all the time, so don’t you talk!” She turned back to Mitch. “You gonna play or not?” “Jenny.” The quiet word brooked no denial. Jenny sighed dramatically. “Sorry, Mummy. Sorry, Mister. Please are you gonna play with me?” Lissa put a hand on Jenny’s pigtail. “Jenny, this is Mitch. He’s Matt and Luke’s daddy.” “No!” Jenny’s sweet, flushed face drained white; those lovely china doll’s eyes filled right up with tears and spilled over. “Don’t take my bruvers. Don’t take Matt and Lukey away from me!” “Jenny.” The little girl’s tiny, flower-like face lifted, drenched with tears. “No, Mummy, no!” she sobbed. “Don’t let him take them, Mummy! Make him go away!” Lissa squatted before the sobbing child as Matt and Luke stood either side of her, patting her in awkward affection. “Mitch is a friend of mine, and Matt and Luke’s father. Would you like it if Matt and Luke told your Daddy to go away?” Jenny sniffed and gulped. “But he’s gonna take them away from us, Mummy! Stop him, stop him!” “No, I’m not, Jenny,” Mitch cut in quietly, aching for the child’s pain. So much like her mother… Jenny’s eyes grew round. “You’re goin’ away? Yay!” But the twins gasped, forgetting Jenny’s grief in an instant. “Dad?” Matt’s voice quivered. “D-don’t you want us?” Luke whispered. Oh, damn. This was a delicate minefield he had to walk—especially with Luke—and he wasn’t any good at careful balance with words. Or with saving people’s feelings. There was too much at stake here. Either way he could lose. How the hell could he explain the situation—what he wanted for them all—without either betraying Lissa’s trust, making the boys resent her, or looking like he wanted to dump Matt and Luke with the first available caregiver? Just like Kerin—even after she went to the trouble of stealing them from me. “Of course he wants to be with you both,” Lissa answered for him, caressing Luke’s curly mop of hair with exquisite tenderness. “He wouldn’t have come for you if he didn’t. He means that he’s moved here, to Breckerville, so he can be near us all. And you guys have the choice. You can go with your Dad, or keep living here if you want to, and he’ll be—” Watching her founder, he supplied the first words that came to his mind: “Right next door.” Lissa whirled to face him. “N-next door? You bought Old Man Taggart’s place?” “All two hundred and fifteen acres of it, rotting fences and all.” Well, he would by tomorrow. He’d be the master of the place he’d once worked at for nothing. The For Sale sign he’d passed was so rusted and sagging he knew he’d get a bargain—and guaranteed a quick sale. Old Man Taggart must’ve died ages ago. The house and land were in such a state of disrepair— He saw the flash of anger in Lissa’s gaze before she looked away. “You have it all worked out, don’t you?” He shrugged, hiding the quick spurt of pain. Was she making it hard for him because she resented his manipulating the situation to his advantage, or because she didn’t want to know about marrying him? “It seemed like a good idea at the time. And it’s not as if I don’t know the land, is it? I know every inch of it. Seems fair to get something out of it this time, instead of Old Man Taggart getting it all.” He was right. After all the years of thankless effort he’d put in, Old Man Taggart treating him like a slave instead of an honest worker, it was right he finally reap the rewards from the land he’d always loved to till. Still, Lissa shook with primitive anger at his blatant maneuvering of her life. Join families. Join the land while we’re at it. The perfect solution for everyone…except me. But the fury melted into heart-deep guilt when she saw the radiant joy in the boys’ faces. “So you’re staying here forever, Dad?” Luke cried, his little face blazing with eagerness; “And we don’t hafta leave Mum?” “I’ll be right here with you guys from now on, mate. Living and working in Breckerville.” Mitch grinned at his son. “I quit the Air Force to be with you—not just a desk job with the force like last time. I’m out for good.” Matt’s face lit up and fell at the same time, giving his face a mercurial, humorous appearance. “Don’t you fly no more?” He gave the rich chuckle that still did funny things to her insides. “Me? Not fly? Come on, Matt, can you see that?” Luke snorted. “Yeah, right, Matt. What a geek. As if Dad could ever stop himself!” He grinned up at Mitch. “So whatcha gonna do now?” Mitch told his sons his plans to start up a country-based air courier business, but as he did, she saw all the quick glances at her. Gauging her reaction. Uh-huh. She might be just an ignorant country girl, but even she could read the writing on this wall—it was in dripping fluorescent letters, screaming like the neon sign over the local video arcade. Mitch had them already married in his mind—wedded to his “perfect solution” of making them one family. One unit. A regiment like the one he’d just left. And she, no doubt, would be on permanent KP/cleaning/child-minding duty. Sure as eggs, it wouldn’t be long before Matt and Luke started giving her the exact same glances Mitch did now. A mother struggling to make it alone; a man wanting a family; two boys needing stability, a full-time mother as well as a dad. Before a week passed the twins would cotton on to Mitch’s plan, falling over themselves trying to help. Hints and innuendoes. Getting Jenny out of the way. Plotting when and how to play Cupid. Well, it wasn’t going to happen. No way, no how. Not now, not ever—no matter how Mitch still affected her senses or how many pretty words he used on her. Tim had done that, too. Words were a sweet deception, a manipulation, nothing more. She was tired of being neatly boxed into “perfect solutions” for everyone but her, sick of being used by men who wanted security, stability and a home from her, but didn’t want— History won’t repeat—not for this little black duck! She clapped her hands. “Right. Scoot, everyone. I need to start on dinner,” she announced. Mitch was still watching her, unnerving her with his quiet perception. “I booked a table at Bob’s for us all.” Before she could open her mouth, the kids started shrieking in joy. “Bob’s Pizza! Way cool!” She met his gaze, hers challenging. “You booked it before you even got here? A table for six, was it?” His mouth twitched; a rueful grin spread over his face. “All right, I lied—but just a little. I plan to book dinner at Bob’s. For five.” He lifted a hand as she started to speak. “It’s a celebration and a thank-you, Lissa. To celebrate being with the boys again and to thank you and Jenny for opening your home and family to my kids the past five months.” He kept watching her. As if he knew her reluctance to go to Bob’s…or anywhere else. As if he knew the last place on earth she wanted to be was with him. Three eager, pleading little faces turned to hers. “C’mon, Mum, please—we haven’t been to Bob’s since we first came here,” Luke begged. “And it’s the best place,” Matt added. Mitch grinned. “I loved the place when I was a kid,” he agreed. “I never had a better pizza since.” “It’s still the best!” Matt and Luke yelled together. “Please, Mummy?” Jenny’s big baby blues were full of wistful wishes. “And I’ll tell Daddy we only went with Matt and Lukey’s daddy—he isn’t gonna go kissin’ you or nothin’,” she added ingenuously with her sweet lisp. “Then Daddy won’t be sad.” After a moment’s silence, Lissa felt Mitch’s gaze on her. On her eyes. On her mouth. Like he’d planned the exact act Jenny denied. To put his mouth on hers…his lips dancing with sensual care over her throat, her shoulders, and down… Matt sniggered. She felt the color rising up her throat and into her face until it scorched her from the inside. “Jenny, you’re a loser,” Matt said, laughing, ruffling her golden curls and winking at Mitch, as if he was nineteen instead of nine. “C’mon, get into your togs, kid. I’ll play on the water slide with you.” “Cool!” Jenny squealed, and ran to her room for her bathing suit. “Wanna come, Dad?” Luke asked Mitch, his eyes bright. Bright with hope, and a fear that was too adult, too world-weary. Not wanting to let his dad out of his sight. Lissa ached for the boy she loved so dearly. Luke still suffered nightmares, with both greater regularity and stronger intensity than the more resilient Matt. Most nights she’d find him sleeping with his twin or with Jenny. She had a nightmare, Mum, he’d mumble the next morning. I was looking after her. Sweet, vulnerable, innocent Luke, with a facade of strength to hide his terrified heart. Just like his father. Lissa watched in hidden hunger as Mitch, his face filled with tender understanding, held his son close. “I’m not going anywhere, mate. Promise. I’m here for good.” “You swear?” Luke whispered. Mitch crouched down before his son. “Have I ever lied to you, Luke?” Eyes enormous, Luke slowly shook his head. “I promise I’ll stay right here. I’ll talk to Mum for a little while, and book a table at Bob’s. Then I’ll jump in the pool with you, all right?” Even behind closed eyes, the vision remained to haunt her mind. A half-naked Mitch, strong, dark and muscular, playing in the cool, slippery blue depths of her pool… Just like we used to. Memories flooded her: the sweetest taboo, the forbidden too enticing to deny. Mitch would sneak out the window on hot summer nights, and she’d be waiting for him. And they’d swim and play in scared silence, in the exhilaration of a shared secret. Knowing that if her parents or Old Man Taggart saw them, they’d put a far less innocent connotation on their water frolics. But it had all been innocent—just as she’d been back then, when she’d believed in love and happy-ever-after with a boy, a man who’d love her and her alone. Forever. The dream of forever love had stumbled when Mitch left her, then died during her marriage to Tim. “Yes, Dad,” Luke said softly. Lissa’s eyes snapped open to see Mitch mock-slap Luke’s bottom. “Then off you go, matey, and have fun. Mum will make sure I don’t leave—won’t you, Mum?” Neatly boxed into a corner, she could only nod; but she couldn’t hold on to the anger when she saw the soft light filling Luke’s dark eyes. The first sign of healing, with the security he so desperately needed. Someone to call his own. A family. Like father like son. Within a minute all three kids dashed past on their way to the pool. “Take clean towels,” she yelled, knowing that, as usual, she’d have to bring them out later. Mitch stood watching her in silence. She turned and washed the coffee cups, wishing Mitch’s plan wasn’t so damned perfect for everyone except her—or Jenny, who still dreamed of her daddy coming back to live with them forever. Another dream she could never make come true. You’re so perfect I feel like slime for even thinking about leaving you, Lissa, but I have to get away… Would she always make everyone she cared for so unhappy? No matter how hard she tried, it wasn’t enough. She wasn’t enough—except for housecleaning or minding kids, that is. Melissa the perfect daughter, giving up dreams of university to help her parents run the farm when her sister Alice took off for Sydney with Brad. Melissa the picture-perfect wife, allowing Tim to open his gym while she worked at the local store to pay the bills. Melissa the wonderful mother. Melissa, the woman everyone in town loved and admired, so loving and giving. Hiding secrets beneath. Pushing the darkness down deep inside. Melissa the dream slayer. “It’s all right, Lissa. I’m not going to jump on you.” Startled, she whirled around to find Mitch watching her, his face shuttered and cold. “Wh-what?” “You’re right. Changes happen, even in Breckerville.” He shrugged as if he didn’t care, but the twist to his lips and flatness in his eyes told her he cared like hell. “You’re not the girl I knew if you get so damn angry about a stupid pizza or that I wanted a family celebration to let the kids know I’m thrilled to be back with them. If your eyes turn to ice because I ask you to reassure my scared and damaged kid I’ll still be around in half an hour. God, Lissa, do you think I’m so bloody desperate to have you I’d blackmail you into marrying me through the kids?” She felt a rising wave of color slap into her face. “Not me. I don’t flatter myself that it’s me you want. Just the family you always dreamed of. Good old reliable Lissa will take my kids—and me. It’s not like she’s got anyone else who wants her!” Then she gasped when she realized what she’d said. Darn it, did she always have to make an idiot of herself with men? Her runaway mouth, saying things she shouldn’t think or feel— Then Mitch riled her with his quiet “Is that what you think? Is that what you believe, Lissa? That I don’t want you?” On the defensive, it was her turn to shrug. “Oh, sure. For cooking. For cleaning. To be there for your kids. Sure you want me. I get the picture.” She nearly fell over when he burst into huge gusts of hard-edged laughter. “That’s so bloody funny,” he gasped. “Uh-huh. I don’t want you. I don’t want you!” He almost doubled over he was laughing so hard. Tears sprang to her eyes. She turned away, determined not to dash at her face until she was alone. “I said I get the picture. You don’t have to laugh at the idea of wanting me! Is it so hard to believe any man could look at me?” But at her dramatic intensity, he only laughed harder. “Hard to believe—oh sheesh, this is a farce!” Then as she tried to stalk past him he reached out, grabbing her, halting her stormy exit. “Oh, no, you don’t, Miller. You’re not cheating me of the chance to—” She struggled against him, terrified of making a complete twit of herself by breaking down. “To what? Humiliate me some more? News flash, McCluskey—I don’t do humiliation. I don’t go in for the masochistic side of S&M. Go find another sucker, you—you loser!” she yelled, coining Matt’s favorite expression, trying to pull herself free from his hand. “News flash, Miller—I might be a loser, but the only sadism—no, masochism—I’ve indulged in in the past seventeen years has been staying away from you!” But far from angry, his eyes were bright with fun—the sweet cascade of happiness only Mitch showed so simply and clearly. She hadn’t seen it in so long she ached just watching him. Wishing she could feel what she saw in his eyes. He was having a great ol’ time, teasing her, riling her. But she wasn’t in the mood for games; his light, mocking attitude sparked a fury inside she hadn’t known she was capable of. “So why did you do it? Why did you stay away from me so long?” she shouted, driven past endurance. “Damned if I know.” He grinned wider and pulled her against him, close, so close she could feel— “So come here and end my misery, will ya?” She gasped and wiggled, shocked and scared and thrilled by the discovery she’d made: a hard bulge nudging her through his jeans. Was that really—? Could he be—? “Don’t order me around, McCluskey,” she said, but it was little more than a breathless rush of sound. “I’ll be damned if I—” “Lissa, honey, I’ve waited for this moment for seventeen years. Can we fight later? For now, just shut up and kiss me.” She stared up at him, her lips parted in numb surprise. He sighed again, but it was a soft, sexy sound; the whispering sound lovers make in the night. “Okay, I’ll forgive you, but just this once.” He bent to her, touching her mouth with his tongue. Then he groaned with that first touch—with the gentle moan, the shudder of need Lissa could no longer help or hide. She wanted him so badly, oh, how she needed this to be real…. And then he shuddered. “Lissa, oh, Lissa, I can’t wait anymore.” And finally, at long last, her sweetest girlhood fantasy came to life: Mitch McCluskey, her first and secret love, the man whose shadowy form still came to her bed in the darkness of her dreams, held her in his arms, not as a friend, but a lover. Caressing her skin. Touching her hair. Lifting her face— And he kissed her. “I’m in.” The tired man hunched over the computer tapped the keys one final time, and, like magic, the database opened to his bleary eyes. After a few more minutes of searching, he spoke to the other man, young and intense, standing in the shadows of deep night behind him. “Yeah, Damon, you were right. It’s your boy.” “You’re sure?” The young man’s eyes blazed, as bright as the other’s were weary; but then, he’d woken the former data operator at 2:00 am. Lucky he had a liking for money and a grudge against the Air Force for dishonorable dismissal. “Confirm it’s Squadron Leader Mitchell McCluskey of the Royal Australian Air Force?” The long-haired hacker, as slovenly and unkempt now as he’d once been clean-cut and meticulous, punched more keys. “Here’s the list of his career. It’s Ex-Squadron Leader McCluskey now. He quit a couple of years ago.” The younger man started. “What? He left the force two years ago?” He frowned and paced the room. “Then why the hell was he in Tumah-ra on recon? Why would the brass let a civilian check out a war zone? Something’s not right—something stinks in all this.” He chewed the inside of his lip, looking thoughtful. “Or was he there without orders—without official orders?” The hacker shrugged. “Final mission or something? A Joan Sutherland command performance for the brass? I dunno. I’m just a computer geek. Anyway, it’s the guy you’re after. He brought the kid in illegally all right. Here’s the printout from DIMA. Careful with them. It’s classified.” He tossed the sheets over. The man known to the backstreet hacker as Damon caught the printed sheets from the Department of Immigration, and slowly read them through. “The department wanted to keep the kid in some refugee facility until they sorted out what to do with her, but McCluskey got clearance to take her to a Tumah-ran family living in Darwin. God knows how he managed that—this kind of clearance could only come from the top brass. What the hell’s he up to?” “I don’t know, man. I did my job.” The hacker held out his hand expectantly for the envelope Damon held in his fist. Damon handed the envelope to the other man, with a slow grin, and walked to the door. “This was a transnational crime. No matter how he got the clearance or who got him into Tumah-ra, he broke the law—and someone in high places is covering up for him. It seems Ex-Squadron Leader McCluskey’s sins are finally about to catch up with him. One way or another.” The hacker turned back to the computer, placing the envelope beside him, and Damon clicked the silencer on in time to the clacking keyboard. Then, with consummate casualness, he turned and shot the hacker through the head. The next five shots took out his hard drive. Within seconds Damon walked out, carrying the hacker’s every disk, as well as the envelope containing both his money and the only trace of his fingerprints in this cheap backyard office. He changed his shoes in the yard, and gave the previously unused runners to a grateful drunk in the alley behind the house. All bases covered—for now. Chapter 3 Mitch was finally kissing her…. And oh, how he kissed her. In dreams her gentle hero, her wandering prince, kissed her in exquisite tenderness and dainty persuasion, showing her how precious she was to him. Then he’d hold her and tell her he loved her and ask her to marry him. Then he’d sweep her up in his arms and carry her to the bedroom…and the loving would be as sweet and tender as the kiss. Welcome to the real world, Lissa…. Either the sun had shifted a million miles closer or Mitch’s kiss was hot enough to burn her alive. She was plastered against him from breast to thigh. His kiss ravaged her with a hunger bordering on desperation. He plundered her mouth with lips and teeth and tongue, intense, overwhelming, insatiable. His hands glided, cupped, caressed every inch of exposed flesh, exposing what wasn’t open to his search with low impatient growls every time he found a barrier, pushing aside what he could, tearing what he could not. As if he had to know every secret inside her, right here, right now. This fevered need to devour her—all of her—did not just come from temporary male deprivation. She knew it, could feel it: the fever, the need, was all for her. He kissed her as if he couldn’t get enough of her…and she moaned, matching kiss for kiss, touch for touch, meeting his need with her own, because she couldn’t get enough, either. He was melting her from the inside out. Every flimsy barrier she’d erected against his potent magic puddled like heated rain at her feet. Her body was on fire, her breathing ragged, her breasts swollen, nipples hard. Her belly was a rippling lava pool of heat. She wanted to eat him alive, drink him inside her, suck him in through her very pores…. Drag him to bed and love him all day and night. “Can you feel me?” he growled too soon, moving his arousal against her without shame or compromise. “I’ve been this hard all day, knowing I was finally going to see you again. I’ve been in pain since I saw you in the garden—and right now I’m ready to explode at one more touch—just one. So don’t push me, Miller, or I’ll show you here and now, where our kids could come in any moment, how much I don’t want you!” She staggered back, groping for support. Her body was flushed with heat, her lips swollen, throbbing with a pleasure bordering on pain—the sweetness of pure feminine sexuality she’d never known. She couldn’t speak; she could only watch him, her eyes wide, her pulse pounding. Waiting for the rest of what this new, totally foreign, frighteningly male Mitch had to say. He followed her like a stalking panther in the jungle grass, moving with sinuous grace and pulsing heat until he stood before her. Breathing. Just breathing. Hot and hard and ready to mate. Her knees almost collapsed beneath her. He only touched her chin, yet she felt trapped, helpless, made weak by her own wanting and the once-sure knowledge, untested until now, that Mitch, her Mitch, would never hurt her in a physical way. “So let’s get this straight,” he said softly, his heated breath caressing her face. “No woman would make my boys a better mother than you. I’m not ashamed to admit that—but I want you as my lover, no matter who else benefits from it or how much I need you for the kids. I want you. I want you in my bed as well as in my life. I want you for me. You’re like a foreign fever inside me there’s no shot for. I always did and I always will want you. Totally. Constantly. Always.” Shooting straight from the hip. No sweet words. No half promises. No winning smile. Just Mitch. I can’t speak pretty words. I only speak what I know. She groped for a chair and sat before she fell down. As soon as she could stop shaking, she whispered, “If…if that’s true, why haven’t you ever told me?” He crouched before her; she could see him trying to gauge her reaction. “When you were fourteen, your parents would have stopped our friendship, or Old Man Taggart would have sent me back to the orphanage. Then, when you were sixteen, I was going to tell you, but you started dating Tim first. Then you were engaged—then married.” She felt tears well up. Tears for all the years lost, all the innocence forsaken. The belief in herself she’d never gotten back since she married Tim Carroll, the childhood friend she never should have married at all. “It’s too late, Mitch.” She choked on the words so badly they came out as a whisper. “Why?” he asked, just as quiet. How could she explain? There were only bald words—words she couldn’t utter. She swiped at her tears, wishing he’d turn away so she wouldn’t humiliate herself by having him watch her crying. He brushed at her face, more of a caress than a wipe of her tears. “What did he do to you, Lissa-My-Lissa?” With the nickname he used to give her in private—coined from one of her beloved Anne of Green Gables books—he melted her. She bit her lip. “Please, let’s not talk about it now,” she murmured, soft and husky. “It’s not worth it.” I just want to forget. “It’s worth talking about if it’s stopping you from taking another chance on life,” Mitch argued quietly. “It affects my life, too. And the boys’ lives, as well.” He had a point; but she’d kept silent so long about her marriage, she didn’t know how to speak. “Not yet.” She twisted her hands in her lap. “Please. I’m thinking about it. You shocked me, saying it like that so fast, but—I’m not saying a final no. I realize how much is at stake for the boys. And…and for you.” He pulled her hands into his, kissing each abused finger, slowly and tenderly. She trembled, watching the intimate, sensual act, as if they were already lovers. “I’ve waited this long. I can wait a little longer. Take your time. I know it’s hard for you to trust me. I’ve been away too long. I’ll go play with the kids.” He smiled at her in strong, masculine sensuality. “But you will be mine,” he said softly, getting to his feet. “And when you are, there’ll be no divorce. It’s forever this time.” Her gaze lifted in teary challenge. “And will you be mine, or is this marriage-and-forever proposal only a one-way contract? You know, like—you owner, me slave?” Almost at the door he wheeled back, frowning, searching into her gaze with disturbing depth. But whatever he sought, he obviously didn’t find it. “If you honestly don’t know the answer to that question, you never knew me at all.” She gave a shuddering sigh. “Maybe I didn’t,” she conceded, hating the sharp dagger thrust of pain the admission cost her. “And that’s no basis for marriage, is it?” In three strides he was before her, lifting her to her feet, looking into her eyes again. This time she felt as if he read past her words and straight into her soul. “Where’s my brave Lissa gone, who took on all comers that hurt me? Liss, maybe it’s yourself you don’t know. It’s what’s inside you—all the fears, all your anger—you’re afraid to let out. You’re so scared of life, even healing from whatever Tim did to you terrifies you.” He touched his lips gently to her cheek, and she felt her whole face flame—from both the kiss, and his perception. How did he know so much about her most secret self, when he’d been everywhere around the world but near her in twelve long years? Mitch sighed at the implicit rejection, but in sadness, not impatience. “Oh, baby, whatever it was he did to destroy your self-confidence, I can fix it if you’ll only let me.” Again she wanted to cry. After six years she thought she’d become an expert at shutting off all feeling except with the kids. Yet she’d been with Mitch less than two hours and she’d fallen apart, not once, but twice. He’d done it again, he’d woven the Merlin wand over her soul, making her think, feel, want…. She couldn’t afford to want—not Mitch. He’d only walk out again. Sooner or later everyone walked out on her. She lowered her gaze before he could see the hunger growing, screaming inside her like a living thing, I want, I want, I want. “It wasn’t Tim’s fault.” She balled her hands into fists to stop the nervous twisting. “He didn’t want to hurt me.” “Yeah, right. That’s what they all say. I thought you were too intelligent to fall for such a pitiful line.” His tender understanding vanished like a shimmering water hole in the desert. “‘Sorry, I couldn’t help myself—I fell in love,’” he mimicked, a painful if unconsciously perfect parody of Tim’s words to her the night he walked out. He gripped her arms, his gaze burning into hers with frightening intensity. “Grow up, Lissa. Wake up! Men have been saying that crap since the dawn of time, making the same lame excuses for their behavior, and women swallow it, forgive them and let them home when they’re tired of that little piece of variety. All his life Tim’s done whatever the hell he liked, and let others pay the price for his selfishness. And if I knew where he lived I’d go and shove his damn line down his lying throat!” She was stunned, unable to speak, as he stared hard at her. “I thought you were smart.” His voice lashed at her like a low predatory snarl of a panther on the hunt. “The guy left you. He’s been gone six years. He slimed on you and screwed around on you and left when you were pregnant with his own kid. Why the hell are you still loyal to him?” Trembling inside as they stood face-to-face, their bodies almost touching, she still managed to face him down. “He might have left me—but you see, he comes back. He calls to see if I’m all right, that I’m still alive, if I need anything. He might be in love with someone else, but he still looks after us, fixing stuff, painting, maintaining the house for me. He helps me with the kids, he’s been like a father to the boys, as well as Jenny. He loves them all.” And she held his heated, angry gaze with her own fury, burning inside her with an intensity hotter and stronger than ever after twelve years. “He still comes back to me—and that alone would earn my loyalty, if nothing else.” “He comes back to see Jenny. He calls to ease his guilt over leaving you—he knows you won’t take anything from him, with that damn-fool stubborn pride of yours. So he comes back once a fortnight like a conquering hero, plays with the kids, pats you on the head with a few household jobs and gets free sex in gratitude for his sterling efforts.” He was openly furious now. “Which part of that particular form of care turns you on, Lissa? Is that what you call a relationship? Or don’t you care, so long as you’re not alone for those few hours before he goes back to his other lover? You certainly have changed, if you’ve sunk low enough to swallow such a pitiful amount from him.” She shivered, sick to her stomach with his calculating assessment, as if he’d dissected her soul to find the disease within. But she couldn’t answer him. Even letting him think she was a fool of this caliber was better than his knowing the truth. He shoved his fists in his pockets, his dark gaze tight and brooding. “I wish I knew why the hell you still love him,” he said quietly. “Why, Lissa? Do you even know?” Unable to stand any more, she turned away. Moments later he stalked out the door to the kids. The sight of him playing with the children, his strong dark face alight with love and laughter, was more than she could take. She stalked out to the market garden, cursing herself for her stupidity. She might have won this round in keeping her secret—but was maintaining her pride intact worth the ultimate cost? Deep inside she knew that, through her damn-fool pride and stubbornness, she’d won one fight, but she might well have lost something far more precious than a battle with the truth: the implicit trust and faith she’d always had with Mitch. “That’s enough, Burstall. You hear me?” The young man in uniform stiffened; his strong, square jaw tightened. “It’s the truth, sir. He smuggled the kid in, and it’s not the first time, is it? What happens to the kids after? Are the adoptions legal or bought? What level clearance does McCluskey have, to keep breaking transnational laws and getting away with it? What brass is in on this? This case involves people smuggling at its worst, sir. And you know that yourself, sir!” A short silence, his commanding officer clearly shifting, on edge. “It’s commendable that you have such eagerness to fulfil your work, Burstall, but this time I’m giving you a direct order—to leave it. Leave Squadron Leader McCluskey alone.” “But he’s not a Squadron Leader now, is he, sir. He left the Air Force two years ago.” “How do you—damn it, that’s highly classified information!” his commander barked, half starting up from his chair, his face purpling. “If you’ve been using our computers to break access codes for more dope on McCluskey, I’ll personally see you get a dishonorable discharge from all duties—anywhere! No more investigation into this. You’re not to gain access to check on those adoptions. Are we clear on this, Burstall?” “High connections giving you pressure, sir?” Damon taunted softly. “Has McCluskey got a politician in his payroll? Seems so—and he’d need one pretty high up to keep this under a tight lid. The immigration minister? The prime minister?” He let his gaze, flat with accusation, speak for him. “It’s harder to fight this filthy trade when those at the top are involved. It makes it hard to keep your own job, doesn’t it, sir?” The commander’s heavy-jowled face reddened. “That’s enough, Burstall. There’s more going on here than you know or need to know. Leave Squadron Leader McCluskey alone. That’s an order!” With open reluctance, Damon took the hint, saluted his commanding officer, turned on his heel and left the office. So he couldn’t use his computer anymore. It was probably safer not to. Anyway, it’d be a snap to find another ex-military hacker with a mercenary soul. It was amazing how easy it was to find people with a grudge against the forces these days. Chapter 4 Damn it all. His facial muscles ached with the forced grin for the kids’ sake. He wanted to yell, throw something, punch his fist through the wall at the back of the house—the fresh-painted wall that bore testimony to Tim’s ongoing care of his family. “Hey, Dad, catch!” Automatically Mitch dived for Luke’s tossed ball and threw it back, lifted Jenny in the air for her catch and throw, all the while his thoughts stuck on Lissa like lava to rock. Oh, yeah, he wanted to hit something all right—but most of all he wanted to put a fist through his thick skull for letting himself get caught up in dreams again. The price he paid for dreaming was way too high. He knew all right. He’d been paying the price ever since Tim beat him to asking Lissa to the school formal. And then he’d asked her to every social function in Breckerville after that, until everyone in town assumed Tim and Lissa would marry. And he’d taken off to the Air Force as if the hounds of hell chased him, going after the only dream he had left. “Piggy in the middle!” Mitch took the part of piggy, wondering if his smile had gone into atrophy yet, it had been plastered there so long. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925170&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.