His Secret Child BEVERLY BARTON Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR PASSIONATE SECRETSOne sultry night many years ago, Sheila Vance became a woman in Caleb Bishop's arms. And though he never knew it, Caleb became a father. Now the hard-hearted bachelor was back in town, and Sheila fought the fiery attraction between them. For this time, Caleb had the power to hurt not only her, but also her precious child.When Caleb saw Sheila again, he wanted her back in his life - and in his bed. But he suspected more than passion made her tremble beneath his touch - and Caleb was determined to discover the elusive beauty's every secret… .3 Babies for 3 Brothers: There's nothing like a secret baby to bring a brooding bachelor home again! Excerpt (#uc6e8c5e6-8e5c-5188-b76d-571a9f0dc7a8)Letter to Reader (#u63992177-ab2f-56e9-a1c5-f4555f329ca3)About the Author (#u694c88d4-3858-5635-a931-d6f6ec605e7e)Title Page (#u22420abb-3d3e-5c5b-a190-be6d709ccf06)Dedication (#u7c4e1bb5-fe09-5abe-8fba-5cf1ef1796dc)Chapter One (#u3abffb9c-d211-5840-b853-efb4537a6702)Chapter Two (#uf937efb8-08b7-596e-b2c1-3183bddc2729)Chapter Three (#u628a4f47-776e-5ae9-8756-d4957ac4fce6)Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo)Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo)Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) “I Need You, Sheila.” He massaged her shoulder, felt her shudder. “Is there some man in your life who would object to our being friends?” “I’m not involved with anyone right now,” she told him. “Then why—” “Because I don’t have room in my life for you, Caleb Bishop!” she said, pulling out of his grasp. Caleb jerked her up against him and brought his mouth forcefully down on hers. She tried to fight the urge to melt into him, to give herself over to his assault, but the effort failed. She responded to his brutal kiss with equal fury. This mad dizziness was a unique sensation. Sheila hadn’t felt anything like it since the last time Caleb kissed her. The night she had given him her virginity and her heart—and he had given her Danny. The child he didn’t know he had fathered. Dear Reader, Spring is in the air—and all thoughts turn toward love. With six provocative romances from Silhouette Desire, you too can enjoy a season of new beginnings. . .and happy endings! Our March MAN OF THE MONTH is Lass Small’s The Best Husband in Texas. This sexy rancher is determined to win over the beautiful widow he’s loved for years! Next, Joan Elliott Pickart returns with a wonderful love story—Just My Joe. Watch sparks fly between handsome, wealthy Joe Dillon and the woman he loves. Don’t miss Beverly Barton’s new miniseries, 3 BABIES FOR 3 BROTHERS, which begins with His Secret Child The town golden boy is reunited with a former flame—and their child. Popular Anne Marie Winston offers the third title in her BUTLER COUNTY BRIDES series, as a sexy heroine forms a partnership with her lost love in The Bride Means Business. Then an expectant mom matches wits with a brooding rancher in Carol Grace’s Expecting . . . And Virginia Dove debuts explosively with The Bridal Promise, when star-crossed lovers marry for convenience. This spring, please write and tell us why you read Silhouette Desire books. As part of our 20 anniversary celebration in the year 2000, we’d like to publish some of this fan mail in the books—so drop us a line, tell us how long you’ve been reading Desire books and what you love about the series. And enjoy our March tides! Regards, Joan Marlow Golan Senior Editor, Silhouette Desire Please address questions and book requests to: Silhouette Reader Service U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269 Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3 About the Author BEVERLY BARTON has been in love with romance since her grandfather gave her an illustrated book of Beauty and the Beast. An avid reader since childhood, she began writing at the age of nine and wrote short stories. poetry, plays and novels throughout high school and college. After marriage to her own “hero” and the births of her daughter and son, she chose to be a full-time homemaker, a.k.a. wife, mother, friend and volunteer. When she returned to writing, she joined Romance Writers of America and helped found the Heart of Dixie chapter in Alabama. Since the release of her first Silhouette book in 1990, she has won the GRW Maggie Award and the National Readers’ Choice Award and has been a RITA finalist. Beverly considers writing romance books a real labor of love. Her stories come straight from the heart, and she hopes that all the strong and varied emotions she invests in her books will be felt by everyone who reads them. His Secret Child Beverly Barton www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) To Paula Detmer Riggs, with whom I share secrets that only our souls know. One Caleb Bishop dropped his suitcase on the front porch. He was home. Funny thing was, this old house in Crooked Oak didn’t seem much like home anymore. He’d left at eighteen and had been back only twice—his grandfather’s funeral and his sister’s wedding. He wouldn’t be here now if there was anyplace else on earth where he could hide away and lick his wounds. Giving the old wooden porch swing a nudge with his hand, he watched it sway back and forth and remembered the summer he’d helped his grandfather build the swing. At that time his brother Jake had already been gone six years and they’d had no idea where he was. Hank had been in the army for a year, and their tomboy sister Tallie had been only fourteen. He had just turned sixteen and his prized possession was a black 1980 Camaro, the car he later wrecked, the night after his high school graduation. Turning around to face the house, Caleb reached under the cushion in the wooden rocker to the left of the swing. He clasped the house key in his hand. Shaking his head, he grinned. Some things never changed, especially in a place like Crooked Oak, Tennessee. Maybe that was the reason he’d come home, back to where life was uncomplicated and the people were basically good. Using his right hand, he inserted the key in the lock, then turned the doorknob. The damn thing wouldn’t open. Was it stuck? Had Tallie changed the lock and just forgotten and left the old key under the cushion? Balling his hand into a fist, he gritted his teeth and cursed. Switching to his left hand, he turned the key again and heard a distinct click, then he grabbed the doorknob and notated it. The door opened. Caleb grunted. The simple things were what bothered him the most because they were the things he often forgot he could no longer accomplish the way he used to. Unlocking a door should be easy, and it was, really. Just not quite as easy as it had been when his right hand had worked properly. Caleb stared at his hand, then ran his gaze up the length of his disabled arm. Sometimes he wished they’d just sawed the damn thing off. What good was it to him, hanging there, the whole thing, from armpit to fingertips, practically useless to him? He kicked the door open wide, picked up his suitcase and stepped into the living room. Home sweet home. A woman’s voice, singing a few lines from an old Lionel Richie hit, drifted through the house. Caleb froze. Who the hell was here? Not Tallie. She was living in Nashville now and married to the governor of the state. Then who could it be? No one else knew he was coming home. Maybe Tallie had hired a local woman to come in and freshen up the place. Caleb set down his suitcase, retrieved the key, then closed the door and walked toward the sound of the woman’s voice. “Hello?” he called. “Who’s there?” He hoped whomever Tallie had hired knew how to keep her mouth shut. He really needed a few days of peace and quiet before word leaked out that the hometown celebrity had returned. He was Crooked Oak’s most famous citizen. Caleb Bishop, star pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. At least, that’s who he had been. But not anymore. “Oh,” she gasped. “I—I didn’t expect you until tonight.” She stood in the arched opening between the living room and dining room, a tall, rawboned blonde wearing a pair of overalls. He guessed her age to be around thirty. Her cleanscrubbed face looked vaguely familiar. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I meant to be out of here before you arrived. Tallie asked me to air out the place and bring in some supplies. She told me that you probably wouldn’t want to go into town for a few days.” She looked at him with wide, round blue eyes. All the while she kept babbling away, apparently trying to explain her presence. It was obvious he made her nervous. “It’s all right.” Caleb looked her over from head to toe. She was a big woman, strong and sturdy and rather attractive in a plain, wholesome way. He was sure he knew her. Why the hell couldn’t he remember who she was? “I’m glad Tallie hired you to take care of things. Will you be coming by a couple of times a week?” “I beg your pardon?” Seeming surprised by his question, she stared at him with those big, beautiful blue eyes. “Didn’t my sister hire you to take care of things around here for me?” “Oh.” Her face reddened, completely obliterating the tiny smattering of Heckles across her cheekbones. “Tallie didn’t hire me. She and I are friends. I got the place ready for you as a favor to her.” Suddenly, he remembered. “Sheila Hanley! My God, I didn’t recognize you at first.” Sheila Hanley, the girl who’d made it possible for him to pass twelfth grade English, graduate from high school and accept a college baseball scholarship. How could he not have recognized her? She’d grown older and slimmer, and her once-dark blond hair was now sun-streaked, but she hadn’t changed that much. The biggest change was in her dark blue eyes. He didn’t remember them being so cool and void of emotion. “Sheila Vance,” she corrected him. “Oh, yeah, that’s right. You married Dan Vance and had a kid, didn’t you?” Caleb racked his brain trying to remember anything Tallie might have told him about Sheila over the years. “Sorry about Dan. He was a good man. I always liked him. You and Mike took over his share of the business after he died, didn’t you? How’s Mike doing these days? Your brother was a real pal when we were growing up.” “Mike’s fine. He’s remarried and expecting his first child. He and I recently bought out Tallie’s share of the business. The garage and tow truck are all ours.” Sheila nodded toward the kitchen. “There’s a barbecue plate for your supper and I brought in enough supplies to last a week. I changed the linens on the bed in your old room and—” “Thanks, Sheila, I appreciate all you’ve done.” When he took a step toward her, she backed away. “You’re welcome. I—I’ll let myself out the back door.” She turned to walk away from him. Caleb called out to her. “Wait.” She halted, but didn’t face him. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you at first,” he said. “That’s all right. We’ve both changed a lot in twelve years.” “Why didn’t I see you at Gramps’s funeral or Tallie’s wedding?” Sheila was one of his sister’s best friends. He couldn’t understand her absence at the only two family events that had been important enough to bring him home. “I was there, Caleb. You just don’t remember. No reason you should. You flew in and right back out the day of your grandfather’s funeral. I never got a chance to speak to you.” Turning slowly, Sheila faced Caleb. “And the day Tallie got married, you arrived late. Besides, I don’t think you could see anyone except your girlfriend that day. You couldn’t keep your eyes off her.” The mere mention of Kimberly knotted Caleb’s stomach. He closed his eyes, trying to blot out the pain, but Kimberly’s face flashed through his mind. Brown eyes. Large, laughing mouth. Delicate body. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. He’d been crazy about her. And he’d killed her. Noticing the sorrow in Caleb’s black eyes, Sheila regretted that she’d said anything about the woman he had loved and lost. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking when I—” “It’s okay,” Caleb said. “Kimberly died nearly a year ago. I should be able to handle talking about her. Besides, you’re right. When I brought her home with me to Tallie’s wedding, she was the only woman I could see.” “She was very beautiful,” Sheila told him. “Everyone thought so. You two made a striking pair. A perfect couple.” She would never forget how ugly and insignificant she’d felt when she’d watched them together—Caleb and the delicately slender supermodel who had been his latest live-in lover at the time. They’d both been absolutely perfect in face and form and so totally “right” as a couple. “We’re not so perfect anymore, are we?” Caleb rubbed his aching right arm. “Kim’s dead and I’m . . .I’m useless.” Somewhere deep inside Sheila existed the young girl who had once adored Caleb Bishop, a foolishly naive girl who would have done anything for him—and had. Now the remnants of that innocent teenager spiraled up from the depths of Sheila’s heart in sympathy and concern for this man who stood in front of her, a man who was little more than a stranger now. “Just because your baseball career is over doesn’t mean you’re useless.” Her calm voice had a sharp, judgmental tone. “You’re still rich, handsome and intelligent. There are a lot of people who’d give anything to have that much.” Knowing full well that Sheila had just put him in his place, Caleb chuckled. Being able to laugh at himself felt damn good. He hadn’t been able to do that in a long time. Usually when someone talked to him as plainly as Sheila had just done, he bit their head off. “Now I remember that your honesty was one of the things I always liked about you,” he said. “You never played games the way so many girls did. You always said what you thought and you sure as hell gave me more than one tongue-lashing that last senior semester when you tutored me in English.” “I’m surprised you remember anything about those months. They were so long ago.” A lifetime ago, Sheila thought. Danny’s lifetime. “Despite the fact that I didn’t recognize you when I first walked in, I do remember you and those months when you pounded some sense into my brain. I know, better than anyone, that without your help I never would have graduated and gone on to play baseball in college. I owed you a lot, Sheila, and I never repaid you in any way.” “Your grandfather paid me to tutor you. It was a job I did for other kids who needed help. And you took me out to celebrate after graduation. Back then, that meant a lot to a girl like me. You could have had a date with any girl in the whole county.” Sheila silently chastised herself for reminding him of that night. Why had she? For her sake and Danny’s sake, she should hope he never remembered any of the details. If he did, he might find out the truth she’d kept hidden from him for twelve years. “God, that was some night, wasn’t it? I was leaving for the summer a week after graduation and I was really full of myself because I’d won a baseball scholarship.” “Yeah, it was some night,” Sheila said. “But I’m afraid I can’t hang around and reminisce anymore. I’ve got to get home. Danny has practice. . .” She stopped talking midsentence, realizing that she shouldn’t be discussing her son with Caleb Bishop. “Danny? Is that your son?” Caleb asked. “You named him after his father, huh?” “Yes, Danny’s my son.” Sheila backed into the kitchen. “I hope you’ll be comfortable here. Enjoy your supper. And if you need anything, give me a call. I left my number on a pad by the phone.” She nodded toward the small table in the living room. “I wish you could stay. I . . .” He’d been about to tell her that he was lonely and needed someone to talk to, to listen and understand. Someone even to fuss at him and argue with him. But Sheila had her own life. A child. A home. A business. She’d hardly have any time to waste on him. After all, what was he to her? Nothing more than her friend Tallie’s big brother. Don’t give in to that sad, wounded, lost look in his eyes, Sheila told herself. Don’t involve yourself in Caleb’s life. If you do, you’ll just get hurt again. And this time, it won’t be only you who will suffer. It’ll be Danny, too. “I’ve got to go,” she told him, but she lingered, drawn to him now, as she had been long ago. He’d been a devastatingly handsome young man; some had even called him pretty. But Sheila had always thought Caleb was too masculine to be a pretty boy, despite his perfect features. He was, in some ways, better looking now since he had matured. He’d always been big, but the gangly form of his youth had disappeared and left in its stead a sturdy, muscular body that made a woman wonder what it would be like to be possessed by all that masculine power. Caleb studied the woman in front of him. “Thanks for everything you did. Getting the old homestead ready for me. Airing out the place and bringing over my supper was nice of you.” He had always liked Sheila, had even thought of her a few times over the years. She’d always had a gentle strength he’d never known in any other woman. He didn’t think he’d ever known any other female, except his sister Tallie, whom he’d genuinely liked. Oh, he’d adored a lot of women, seduced more than his share, had even been head over heels in love a couple of times, but he didn’t think he’d liked any of those women. Not even Kim. She had been as big a phony as he’d been. Her whole world had revolved around herself, just the way his world had revolved around him. “I have to go, Caleb.” Sheila realized that she needed to break eye contact with him, to end the spell his pleading gaze had cast over her. “Yeah, I know. Go on. I’m fine. I’ll settle in, eat my supper and go to bed early.” “Give Tallie a call and let her know you made it home okay.” “You’d think she was my mother instead of my kid sister, the way she’s hovered over me since the accident.” “She loves you, that’s why.” For one brief moment Caleb thought he saw a flicker of some deep emotion on Sheila’s face. Surely after all these years, she didn’t still care about him. Twelve years ago she’d had a crush on him and despite the fact she hadn’t been his type back then, he’d been flattered by her shy adoration. “I’ll see you around,” Sheila said, her voice steady and calm. “Take care of yourself.” She made it to the back door before Caleb caught up with her. He grabbed her shoulder. She froze. He turned her slowly to face him. “To most of the people around here, I’m a local hero, and that’s going to make it difficult for me to fit in. I need a friend who isn’t intimidated by the fact that I was the star pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. I need you, Sheila.” No, her mind screamed. Yes, her heart pleaded. “I’m sorry, Caleb. I can’t I . . .” He massaged her shoulder, felt her shudder. Caleb wasn’t sure exactly why it was suddenly so important to him to renew his old friendship with Sheila, but it was. Maybe she reminded him of good times, of being very young and—Who was he kidding? He was a man who’d been without a woman for more than a year. He’d spent months in the hospital after the accident and not until recently had he been able to even dress himself. Sheila Hanley Vance might not be a beauty, but there was something about her that made him want to run his hands over her big, sturdy body, made him want to lift her onto the wooden table in the middle of the kitchen and slide between her legs. Even if he hadn’t recognized her when he’d first seen her tonight, his body had remembered hers. She’d been a virgin that night twelve years ago, but she’d been eager and wild and as willing as any woman he’d ever taken. There had been too many women in his life, especially when he’d been younger. He couldn’t even remember some of their names. But Sheila had been different. Different because he had genuinely liked her. “Is there some man in your life who would object to our being friends?” he asked. “I date occasionally,” she told him. “But I’m not involved with anyone right now.” “Then why—” “Because I don’t have room for you in my life, Caleb Bishop.” Pulling out of his grasp, she turned her back to him and opened the door. “I don’t have time to be the kind of friend you need. But there are dozens of women in Crooked Oak who’d be glad to be your friend.” She walked out onto the back porch, but before she could close the door, Caleb grabbed her around the waist and twirled her so that she faced him. He jerked her up against him, circled the back of her neck with his big left hand and brought his mouth forcefully down on hers. She tried to fight the urge to melt into him, to give herself over to his assault, but the effort failed. She responded to his brutal kiss with equal fury, opening her mouth to accept his thrusting tongue. This mad dizziness was a unique sensation. Sheila hadn’t felt anything like it since the last time Caleb had kissed her. The night she had given him her virginity and her heart—and he had given her Danny. Suddenly remembering her son—Caleb’s son, the child he didn’t know he had fathered—Sheila ended the kiss and shoved against Caleb’s chest Cupping her hip, he pressed her into his arousal and groaned deep in his throat. “We were friends, even lovers for one night. There’s no reason why we couldn’t be again, since neither of us is attached.” Pushing him away, Sheila glared at Caleb. Her heart wept for what could have been—and for what could never be. But she looked at him squarely, her eyes dry, her face void of emotion. Calmly and without anger, she said, “When you first walked into your old home a few minutes ago, you didn’t even recognize me. I doubt you’ve given me, our former friendship or our one-night stand a thought in twelve years. I’m not one of your beautiful, sophisticated women, Caleb. I’m a widow and a mother, living in a little town in Tennessee. I’m not in the market for a brief affair with the hometown hero.” She turned and walked away, out into the yard and down the gravel road at the side of the house. Standing on the back porch, Caleb watched her until she was out of sight. With every soft, natural sway of her womanly hips, his whole body throbbed with need. Sheila Hanley Vance had just put him in his place again. Something a woman hadn’t done in a long time. Actually not since Sheila had slapped his face the first time he’d kissed her. Women didn’t say no to Caleb Bishop, star athlete. Beautiful women, sexy women, rich women threw themselves at him on a regular basis. And now here he’d just been turned down by a big, rawboned, rather plain woman wearing a pair of faded overalls. Despite the aching need in his body, he laughed loud and hard and long. Hell, Sheila was right. There had to be a couple of dozen women in Crooked Oak who’d jump at the chance to go to bed with him if he needed a woman so damn bad. But as much as he’d enjoy female companionship, he needed his privacy even more. At least for a while. Until he’d come to terms with being back home. Until he decided what he was going to do with the rest of his life, now that his major league career was over. Sooner or later he would get tired of being alone out here. Sooner or later he’d want female companionship even more than he did right now. But the thought of bedding some starry-eyed fan didn’t appeal to him. Just once, he’d like to make love to a woman who genuinely cared about him, the way Sheila had cared about him all those years ago. Sheila increased her pace as soon as she rounded the bend in the road and knew that Caleb could no longer see her. Breaking into a run, she raced homeward, wanting to put as much distance between Caleb Bishop and her as she possibly could. She hadn’t meant for him to find her at his house; she’d meant to be long gone before he arrived. Now, as the March wind whipped loose strands of her hair against her cheeks and her heartbeat roared in her ears. tears that she could not—would not—shed lodged in her throat. Breathless and damp with perspiration, she bounded up the steps to her front porch. Slumping down on the top step, she covered her face with her hands and rested her elbows on her knees. When Tallie had phoned from Nashville to ask her to open up the house for Caleb’s return, she’d wanted to tell her friend no. But she couldn’t refuse. What excuse could she have possibly given Tallie? Even though Tallie had known Sheila had a crush on Caleb twelve years ago, she didn’t know anything about that one night they’d spent together. And she didn’t know the truth about Danny. Tallie probably thought she’d play matchmaker and throw Sheila. and Caleb together, giving Sheila a chance with the guy she’d been in love with at eighteen. But the last thing Sheila wanted was Caleb Bishop back in Crooked Oak for any length of time. If Caleb ever found out exactly how old Danny was, if he ever took a good, hard look at her son, he just might start to wonder. A man at loose ends, his once-glamorous and exciting life ended, Caleb was probably searching for something to fill the empty days. But once he came to terms with his disability and had a chance to decide what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, he’d leave Crooked Oak. When he’d left her twelve years ago, she had survived. But she didn’t want her son to have to suffer over Caleb Bishop’s second departure. Danny had gone through enough when Daniel had died five years ago. He had already lost one father. She wasn’t going to run the risk of his accepting Caleb into his life and then losing him, too. Sheila stood, dusted her hands off on her hips and went inside the small, wooden house she’d lived in with her husband. She heard the television in Danny’s room and knew he was watching “Nickleodeon.” She allowed her son a great deal of freedom, and with each passing year she let him make more and more of his own decisions. If he was watching TV, that meant he’d finished his homework and was probably ready for dinner. They usually ate around five-thirty during the months when Danny didn’t have baseball practice, and it was already past five now. She walked down the hall and stopped in front of Danny’s open door. Peeping in, she saw him spread out across the bed, his back braced against the headboard. He glanced away from the TV and up at her. He smiled. And for one endless moment Sheila’s heart stood still. He had his father’s smile. That lazy, smirking grin that curved the left side of his mouth. She was surprised that no one had ever noticed. If Caleb had been around all these years, someone would have put two and two together long ago. “Hi, Mom. Did you get Tallie’s house all fixed up for Caleb?” “Yes.” “When’s he supposed to get here? Sometime tonight?” “He’s already here. He came before I left.” “Did you talk to him? Gosh, Mom, I can’t believe that Caleb Bishop is living down the road from us.” Danny scooted to the side of the bed and jumped up. “Do you think he’d give me his autograph? The guys at school didn’t believe me when I told them that my mom was going to take Caleb Bishop his supper.” Danny rushed across the room, picked up his baseball and leather glove, then tossed the ball into the air and adeptly caught it in the mitt. “Do you think he’d mind giving me some pointers? You could tell him who I am, that Tallie’s practically my aunt, since you and she are such good friends.” Sheila grasped her son’s shoulder and forced a smile on her face. “We’re not going to bother Caleb while he’s visiting Crooked Oak. He’s come here to recuperate. But if he stays long enough, I’m sure we’ll run into him sooner or later.” “Ah, gee, Mom, couldn’t I just stop by his house and get his autograph?” “No, you may not. I don’t want you pestering Caleb. “Asking a famous person for his autograph isn’t pestering him.” “Danny Vance, I want you to promise me that you won’t go over to Tallie’s house and bother Caleb.” “Ah, Mom.” She had to keep Danny and Caleb apart if at all possible. The more they were together, the more likely it would be that someone would notice the similarities between the two. Even Caleb might notice that Danny didn’t resemble Daniel Vance in the least Danny had inherited her blue eyes, but that was all. His black hair and dark complexion were genetic gifts from Caleb, as were his natural athletic abilities. “I’ll tell you what,” Sheila said. “Promise me that you won’t bother Caleb and I’ll make sure you meet him and get his autograph before he leaves Crooked Oak.” “Okay,” Danny agreed reluctantly. “Go wash up and get ready for supper. We’re having barbecue.” “Great. Barbecue is my favorite.” Danny tossed the ball and glove down on his bed, then raced out of the bedroom and up the hall to the bathroom. Sheila ran her hand lovingly over the baseball glove she’d given Danny for Christmas. He’d been fascinated with the game since he was a baby, and Daniel had bought him his first ball and bat, both plastic, when he was two. Daniel had been a good man. A kind husband and a loving father to a child he’d known wasn’t his. She still missed him, and knew that Danny did, too. Surviving Caleb Bishop’s return would have been so much easier if Daniel were still alive. But Daniel was gone, and she had no one else to count on except herself. She and she alone would have to find a way to protect herself and her son from a man who could bring them nothing but heartache. Two Caleb hit the rewind button on the VCR and cursed himself for a fool. Why the hell had he brought along the tape of last season’s final playoffs game—the last baseball game of Caleb Bishop’s illustrious career—when watching himself in top form was an excruciating torment? “You’re a glutton for punishment, aren’t you, Bishop?” he said to himself. “How many times are you going to watch that damn tape?” When he stood, he tossed the remote control onto the sofa and headed for the kitchen. His stomach rumbled, as if on cue, the moment he entered the neat, white kitchen. Glancing at the clock on the microwave, he noticed that it was nearly noon. He hadn’t eaten a bite since he’d gotten up nearly four hours ago. For the past ten days he had shut himself off from the rest of the world. Living like a hermit, he hadn’t even answered the telephone for the first few days. But Tallie’s insistent messages warning him that if he didn’t pick up the damn phone before long, she was going to drive down from Nashville and personally kick his butt, encouraged him to make contact with the outside world. Caleb pulled a box of cereal from an upper cupboard, retrieved the milk from the refrigerator and prepared himself a bowl of comflakes. The supply of groceries Sheila Vance had brought him was nearly gone. Within a day or two, he’d either have to make a trip into town or ask Sheila to do some shopping for him. He liked the idea of giving Sheila a call. More than once he had stopped himself from contacting her and using any pretense to lure her over to his house. But she’d made it perfectly clear that she wasn’t interested in a brief affair. No, she wouldn’t be. His instincts told him that Sheila was still the type of girl who’d want a long-term commitment from a guy. And he simply wasn’t the kind of man who made a woman promises he couldn’t keep. Just as he downed the last spoonful of soggy flakes, the telephone rang. Damn, why couldn’t Tallie leave him alone! He jerked the receiver from the wall hook by the back door and growled into the phone. “Yeah, what do you want now?” “And hello to you, too,” Hank Bishop said. “Hank?” “Yep. Who’d you think it was?” “Tallie,” Caleb replied. “Our little sister is driving me nuts trying to keep tabs on me from Nashville. You’d think with a husband, a baby and duties as first lady of the state, she wouldn’t have time to pester the hell out of me.” Hank chuckled, the deep sound reverberating from his chest. “Well, you know our Tallie. She can’t keep her nose out of everybody else’s business.” “So, what’s up, big brother? Or are you checking on the washed-up has-been, too?” “You’re going to have to stop feeling sorry for yourself sooner or later,” Hank said. “Why don’t you do all of us, yourself included, a big favor and make it sooner?” Caleb snorted. “Humph. Straight to the heart of the matter, as always. You make it sound so easy. Just pick myself up by the bootstraps, dust myself off and do. . .do what, big brother? I wasn’t the smart, straight-arrow type like you. And I wasn’t the hell-raising rebel like Jake. All I ever wanted was to play baseball. Since I was just a little kid. Now, that’s gone. Forever. And I don’t have the slightest idea what to do with the rest of my life.” “How about starting by being grateful you have the rest of your life.” Caleb knew that his older brother meant well, but Hank didn’t know what it felt like to have his life out of control, his dreams destroyed and his future uncertain. No, Hank was the type who, no matter what happened, would always take charge and find a way to do the honorable thing. If Hank were in his shoes, he’d already have mapped out a new course for his future. But then, Hank was the smart brother. Caleb was the dumb jock. “Yeah,” Caleb agreed. “I suppose being a pitcher with a useless right arm is better than being dead.” “Are you still moping around the old homestead?” Hank asked. “Haven’t you even been into town? I’ll bet folks are dying to see you and welcome the local hero back to Crooked Oak. And there’s probably more than one cute girl who’d like to ease your loneliness.” Caleb chuckled. There was no point denying his ladykiller reputation, not to his own brother, who knew him better than anyone else alive. “As a matter of fact, I met a rather interesting woman the first day I came back.” “I thought you hadn’t left the house.” “This particular woman was here when I arrived. She’d aired out the place, brought in groceries and had my supper waiting for me.” “Are you talking about Tallie’s friend? What’s her name? Mike Hanley’s kid sister? The one who married Dan Vance?” “That’s the one. Sheila Vance.” “If I remember correctly, I’d say the woman isn’t your usual type.” “Maybe I’d like to try something different for a change,” Caleb said. “I’ve had my share of airheaded beauties. Sheila may be a plain Jane, but there’s something about her that—” “It’s called quality,” Hank said. “Tallie thinks highly of Sheila. Seems she’s had it pretty rough, widowed so young and trying to raise a child on her own. Think twice before you use a woman like her to ease your loneliness.” “If you’re warning me not to hurt Sheila, save your breath. Tallie’s already read me the riot act.” “Good for her.” Hank cleared his throat. “Why don’t you come up to Virginia and stay with me for a while?” “I might later on. But for now I just want to stay put to try to figure out who the hell Caleb Bishop is if he’s not the star pitcher for the Atlanta Braves.” “You’ll figure it out.” Hank sighed loud enough for Caleb to hear him. “Do me a favor, will you? Call our little sister and ask her to leave me alone, at least for a few days.” “Will do. Talk to you in a couple of weeks.” “So long.” Caleb hung up the receiver, then glanced out the kitchen window at the vast backyard and thickly wooded area behind the house. If he was a hunter and fisherman, the way Hank was, he could pass the time with a rifle or with a rod and reel. And if he was a hard-living SOB like Jake, he could hit every bar in town and ease some of his frustration in a few fistfights. But baseball had been his only passion for so many years that he could barely remember ever caring about anything else. As a teenager, the only other thing that had interested him had been his 1980 Camaro—the car he had wrecked, the car Tallie had put back together years later. Cars. Hmm. Maybe he needed to buy himself a fixerupper street rod and—Hell, how could he do any work on a car when his right hand was practically useless to him? Sheila and Mike owned a garage, didn’t they? He could stop by and talk to them about helping him find something special—maybe another Camaro—and he could hire them to do most of the work. He could hang around the garage and watch, and occasionally do a few things himself. Okay, Bishop, admit the truth. You need an excuse to see Sheila Vance again. An excuse she’ll buy without any question. “All right, I admit it,” he said out loud to himself. “I don’t know why I can’t stop thinking about Sheila. Maybe it’s because she’s so different from the women I’ve always dated. Maybe it’s because winning her over would be a real challenge.” Think twice before you use a woman like her to ease your loneliness Caleb heard Hank’s warning once again. Sheila was no kid. She was a thirty-year-old widow, not some naive innocent. A pang of guilt hit him square in the gut. At least not this time, an inner voice said. Okay. Okay. So Sheila had been a shy bookworm when he’d known her twelve years ago. And yes, he’d been pretty sure she was a virgin the night he made love to her. But it wasn’t as if he’d forced himself on her. She’d been more than willing for him to be her first lover. She was in love with you, you bastard! But that was then and this is now. Sheila was no starry-eyed, infatuated innocent anymore. If they had a brief affair now, they would meet on equal terms—two lonely people in need of companionship. Who the hell was he kidding? Sheila Vance was no more in his league now than she’d been when they were eighteen. He had no right to even consider seducing her. But, God help him, he knew that given half a chance he’d take her and to hell with the consequences. Mike Hanley placed the hot Reuben and fries on the desk in front of his sister. She glanced up from the computer and smiled at him. “Thanks. I’m starving.” She shoved back her chair, stood and headed for the small rest room adjacent to her office. “Don’t you think it’s time we talk about it?” Mike said. “You’ve put me off every time I’ve brought up the subject.” Leaving the bathroom door open, Sheila washed and dried her hands. “What’s there to talk about? Caleb’s back in Crooked Oak for a brief visit and when he’s pulled his life back together, he’ll be gone again.” “Well, it doesn’t look like he’s in any hurry to leave. He’s already been here ten days and hasn’t even put in an appearance in town. The natives are getting restless for a good look at the big celebrity.” “I suppose Caleb was the main topic of conversation over at Pete’s Cafd, wasn’t he?” Sheila returned to her desk, opened the styrene food container and growled hungrily when she picked up the sandwich. “Caleb Bishop has been the main topic in town ever since your son told all his buddies that the great man had arrived.” Mike sat down on the edge of the battered old wooden desk, reached out and grasped his sister’s chin. “Sticking your head in the sand isn’t going to work, you know. Crooked Oak is a small town. If Caleb stays—and it looks like he’s going to—then sooner or later he and Danny are going to come face-to-face. What happens then?” Sheila swallowed the delectable mouthful of corned beef. “Nothing happens. There’s no reason for Caleb to suspect anything. After all, not a soul in town ever questioned that Daniel was Danny’s father. Why should Caleb?” “Because Caleb is one of four people who knows you and he had sex twelve years ago.” Mike released her chin. “Have you talked to Susan lately?” “I’ve been avoiding her calls,” Sheila admitted. “I know she’s going to do just what you’ve been doing—torment me.” “Honey, it’s your own conscience that’s tormenting you. You’re feeling guilty for lying to Danny about his father. And you’re scared to death that somehow he and Caleb are going to find out the truth.” “I won’t let that happen.” Sheila broke a French fry in two. “I will not let Danny get hurt because of my mistakes.” The telephone rang. Sheila jumped, then glared at the noisy object. “Want me to get it?” Mike asked. “No, of course not.” Sheila lifted the receiver. “Hanley Garage and Tow Truck Service.” “Sheila? Have you seen my brother today?” “Oh, hello, Tallie, how are you?” Mike’s eyes widened and his mouth curved into a smile. “Tell the first lady I said hello. I’m going back to work. Mr. Chapman is coming by in about an hour to pick up his Suburban.” The minute Mike left the office, Sheila lowered her voice and said, “I haven’t seen Caleb since the first evening he got into town. Why would you think I’d seen him today?” “Well, I talked to him earlier and he promised me that he’d get out for a while this afternoon.” “What makes you think he’d come to see me?” “Because he said he planned to stop by the garage and talk to you and Mike about finding him an antique car that the three of you could restore together.” “Oh!” Oh, my God! The last thing she wanted—the very last thing she needed—was a reason to spend any time with Caleb. But if he did come by and hire Mike to help him restore an old car, how could she possibly refuse? What reasonable explanation could she give for not taking his money? “Look, I can trust you to watch out for Caleb. He’s lonely and vulnerable right now,” Tallie said. “Without someone to keep close tabs on him, he’s liable to let the first pretty face he meets get him into trouble. The last thing he needs is some hero-worshiping fan to get her claws into him.” “What do you expect me to do about it?” Sheila asked. “Besides, if he doesn’t ever leave the farm, then it’s highly unlikely that some crazed female fan is going to seduce him.” “All I’m asking is that if Caleb needs a little female companionship while he’s in town, you provide it for him.” “I’m afraid your idea of companionship and your brother’s are two different things. And believe me, I’m not sleeping with your brother as a favor to you.” “Hell’s toenails,” Tallie said, moaning dramatically. “I don’t expect you to. It’s just that he’s all alone and you’re all alone and—” “I’m not all alone,” Sheila told her. “I have family. Danny. Mike and his Christy. And I have dated Pat Lawley a few times recently.” “Pat Lawley? My heavens, Sheila, you’re four inches taller than Pat and five years older. I like Pat, but he’s hardly the man for you.” “Pat and I are the same height. And he’s twenty-seven, which makes him three years younger than I am.” “Doesn’t matter. Pat’s not right for you.” “You aren’t implying that you think Caleb is the right man for me, are you?” “Well, maybe not But I do remember a time when you had quite a crush on my brother. If he’d had any sense back then, he would have snapped you up before Dan Vance married you.” “Tallie!” “Oh, all right, I’ll stop trying to play matchmaker. If you’re not interested in Caleb for yourself, then try to find him some nice girl to date while he’s in town. And I mean nice.” “I’ll see what I can do.” “Thanks. And give me a call in a few days and let me know how he’s doing. Okay?” “Okay.” After hanging up the phone, Sheila rested her elbows on the desk and cradled her chin in her cupped hands. If Tallie hadn’t been Caleb’s sister, she would have told her the truth twelve years ago. When she had discovered she was pregnant, she’d gone straight to Susan Williams, who had been the third member of their friendship triangle. Sheila hadn’t wanted to keep the truth from Tallie, but she had convinced Susan and herself that if Tallie knew the child she was carrying belonged to Caleb, then Tallie would tell her brother. And the last thing she’d wanted was to ruin Caleb’s big chance to play college baseball. She might have felt differently about things if Caleb had loved her. But he hadn’t. He’d taken her out on graduation night and she’d suspected all along that the date was a repayment for her valuable assistance in helping him pass his final exam. What had started out as a pleasant evening spent with a friend had turned into a passionate night that she had never been able to forget. She had lived off the memory of that one night for twelve years. She had lain in Dan Vance’s arms during the intimate moments of their marriage and thought about the night another man had made love to her. And she suspected that Dan had known and had forgiven her for being unable to forget the man who had fathered her child. A gentle tapping on the open door alerted Sheila of a potential customer. She looked up to see Caleb Bishop poised in the doorway, his long, lean frame silhouetted by the afternoon sunlight behind him. Her heart skipped a beat. Her stomach fluttered. Damn him for still having such a potent effect on her. Damn him for coming back into her life and unsettling her peaceful existence. And damn him for unwittingly putting Danny’s security at risk. “Hello,” he said. “Have you got time for me?” She wanted to scream no loud and clear. She wanted to tell him to go away and leave her alone, to stop sending her into turmoil with his nearness. But she couldn’t say or do anything to alert him that she was afraid of him, that his presence in her life was a danger to both her and her son. “Sure. What do you need?” She whirled the swivel chair around, shoved it back and stood to face him. I need you, honey, he wanted to say, but didn’t I need to set you up on that old desk of yours, spread your legs, unzip my jeans and. . . His thoughts wreaked havoc on his body. His sex enlarged and tightened uncomfortably. He removed his cap and fiddled with it in his large hands. “I, er, I thought maybe you and Mike could find me an old hot rod to restore. I couldn’t do all the work myself—” he raised his limp right arm “—but I thought I might keep the car here and y’all could help me fix it up. It’d give me something to do to pass the time.” “What’s the matter? Have you gotten tired of holing up at the farm and feeling sorry for yourself?” He grinned, that devastatingly cocky grin that countless female fans swooned over. Sheila wanted to shout to the world that he had bestowed that special smile on her years before he’d become a baseball star. “Yeah, something like that.” He took several tentative steps into her office. “So, do you think you can find me a car?” “I’m sure Mike can, if you tell him what you’re looking for. He’s working on a van right now. Why don’t you go on out to the garage and talk to him?” “Do you still tinker around on cars yourself?” he asked. “I remember you were almost as good a mechanic as Tallie.” “Occasionally I get my hands greasy,” she said. “If Mike needs my help. But mostly I handle the office and take part of the tow truck calls.” “I remember when Gramps and Dan first went into business together. It was right after Gramps’s first heart attack and the doctor told him he couldn’t work at the factory any longer. Dan had been recently widowed and left his job in Chattanooga to come home to Crooked Oak and put his life back together. Sure never thought he’d wind up marrying one of Tallie’s friends.” “Dan was a good man and we had a good marriage, despite the difference in our ages. I still miss him terribly.” “Yeah, I guess you do.” Caleb’s body relaxed enough that he felt comfortable moving in a little closer to Sheila,. “But at least he left you with a child. I imagine having Dan’s son makes living without him easier.” Myriad emotions tightened Sheila’s chest. For one brief moment she couldn’t breathe. Her instant reaction to Caleb’s comment was fury. She wanted to pound his chest with her fists and tell him that her child was his son, not Daniel’s. A long, seemingly endless moment of silence strung out between them. Say something, Sheila told herself. Say something before he wonders why you’re reacting this way. But before she could think of an appropriate response, a woman’s soft voice called from the doorway. “Hi.” Smiling directly at Sheila, Donna Fields curled her small hand and waved her fingers in greeting. “I stopped by to see if my car’s ready.” Glad for any interruption, Sheila breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, Donna, come on in.” The elegantly slender woman, a mane of mahogany red hair falling around her shoulders, entered the small office. She halted beside Caleb, who had turned and openly admired the woman’s physical beauty. “Hello,” Donna said. “I don’t think we’ve met Are you a customer or a friend?” Caleb reached out and took Donna’s hand, gave it a lingering squeeze, then grinned devilishly, flirtatiously. And the Green-eyed Monster soared inside Sheila like a jet plane in flight. Did the man have to try to charm every woman he met? “I’m an old friend and a potential customer,” Caleb replied. “Caleb Bishop, at your service, pretty lady.” “Caleb Bishop?” Donna practically gushed with enthusiasm and pleasure. “Tallie’s brother. The baseball player.” She pumped Caleb’s hand. “I’ve heard so much about the Bishop brothers from Tallie that I feel as if I know all three of you.” “I’m sure she told you that I’m the handsome one.” Caleb’s smile widened. “By the way, how do you know Tallie? You weren’t one of her high school friends. Believe me, I’d remember if you were.” Oh, yeah, Sheila thought, Her he would remember. Donna laughed, obviously charmed by the man who still held her hand. “Actually, I met Tallie when I was dating Peyton.” She chucked at his puzzled expression. “Oh, there wasn’t anything serious between your brother-in-law and me. We were just friends.” Sheila rose from the chair, squared her broad shoulders and stood beside Donna. Might as well let Caleb get a good look at the two of us, side-by-side, get the comparison over with and come to the conclusion that any man would—that Donna Fields was a beautiful desirable woman and Sheila Vance was a big, plain country girl. “Your car’s ready,” Sheila said. “I’ve got your bill.” Donna rummaged in her purse, pulled out a credit card and handed it to Sheila. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I have an evening class, so I have to rush back to Marshallton for a dinner date with a colleague.” “We’ll have to get together soon.” Sheila processed the bill, then returned the card to Donna. She pulled a set of keys off a nearby hook. “Here’s your keys. Your Corvette’s parked in the side lot.” Donna took the keys, gave Sheila a quick hug and whispered in her ear, “Is Susan pregnant yet?” “Not yet,” Sheila replied softly. “Keep your fingers crossed. She and Lowell are going in for some tests next week.” Donna shook her head, then turned to Caleb. “Nice to have finally met one of Tallie’s brothers.” “Would you be interested in seeing more of one of Tallie’s brothers?” Caleb asked. “Oh, that’s a tempting offer, but I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. You see, I’m taking a group of my students from the junior college to England during spring break and I’m going to be terribly busy from now until we leave.” “Maybe when you get back.” “Maybe. If you’re still in Crooked Oak.” Caleb watched the strikingly lovely redhead’s departure, every male instinct within him admiring the sway of her shapely hips. “Donna’s a beautiful woman, isn’t she?” Sheila commented. Caleb suddenly realized that Sheila had witnessed his practiced come-on to Donna. Damn! When it came to pretty women, he seemed powerless to stop himself from flirting. Sometimes the flirting led to other things, but more often than not, it didn’t. However, Sheila would probably judge his actions as those of a philandering jock. After all, he did have the reputation, didn’t he? And if he were completely honest with himself, he’d have to admit that the reputation had been fairly earned. “Yeah, she is beautiful,” Caleb said, then turned his attention to Sheila. “So. . .do you think I should ask her out when she gets back from England?” “That’s entirely up to you,” Sheila said. “What kind of woman is she?” “A very nice lady.” “Too nice for me?” “I didn’t say that.” “Do you think we’d make a good pair?” he asked. “In some ways,” Sheila said. “Just like you, Donna isn’t interested in a commitment. She dates, but she never gets serious about anyone.” “A woman after my own heart.” Caleb chuckled. “So Donna likes to play around and—” “She’s a widow who’s still in love with her husband. She dates, but she doesn’t play around, so if you want a sex partner—and I’m sure you do—then Donna’s probably the wrong choice.” “What about you, Sheila? Are you a woman who’s still in love with her husband?” I was never in love with Daniel Vance. But I can hardly tell you that fact, any more than I can tell you that Danny is your son or that you’re the man I fell in love with when I was just a foolish teenage girl. “A part of me will always love Daniel.” And I will always be grateful to him for marrying me and giving your son a father. “But, no, I’m not in love with him.” “Mmm. So, if Mike can find me a car, would you be interested in helping me fix it up?” “Me? I don’t think so. But I’m sure, if the price is right, Mike will help you.” “Why not you?” Caleb studied Sheila Vance closely. A slight pink flush stained her cheeks. He grinned. His blatant survey obviously embarrassed her. She was as different from Donna Fields as an oak tree from a red maple. Donna was breathtaking, colorful and delicately feminine. Sheila was strength and simplicity and looked like the type of woman who could plow a field, fight off a band of renegade natives and give birth—all in the same day. “Let’s just say that I’m not interested, okay?” She had no intention of being one of Caleb Bishop’s pastimes while he was visiting Crooked Oak. She wasn’t going to volunteer to amuse him for the next couple of weeks, until Donna got back from England or until some other pretty girl caught his eye. “You’re a hard-hearted woman, Sheila Vance.” “I’m a—” “Hey, Mom. Practice was great. Pat said I’m going to be the Bulldogs’s star pitcher this year.” Danny Vance raced into the office, a wide, warm smile, identical to his father’s, spread across his face. Sheila’s heart missed a beat. Damn, she’d lost track of time. Why hadn’t she remembered that Pat Lawley was going to drop Danny by the garage after Little League practice today? “Did he? That’s wonderful, Danny.” Sheila forced a smile to her lips. Well, the inevitable had happened. Caleb and Danny were in the same room together. And strangely enough, the world hadn’t come to an end. Yet. “So, this must be your son,” Caleb said. “Yes, this is Danny.” Sheila grasped her child’s shoulders and turned him around to meet the one man on earth she’d assumed he would never meet. “Danny, this is Caleb Bishop.” “Wow wee, Caleb Bishop!” Danny jerked out of his mother’s grasp and rushed over to Caleb. “Man, this is great. Just wait till I tell the guys that I met Caleb Bishop. Right here in my mom and uncle Mike’s garage. And Pat. He’s a big fan of yours, too. Pat Lawley’s our coach. We’re the Bulldogs. You ought to come to a game. You’d—” “Danny, slow down,” Sheila said. “You’re talking Mr. Bishop to death.” “Yeah, sorry.” Danny bowed his head sheepishly. Smiling closemouth, he cut his glance in a sideways gesture she’d seen Caleb make time and again when he was being repentant. “I’d like your autograph, Mr. Bishop. I’ve got a brand-new ball. Do you think you could sign it for me?” “Call me Caleb. And I’d be glad to drop by your house any time and sign that new ball.” “How about tonight?” Danny lifted his head and Sashed Caleb a brilliant smile. “You could come to dinner. Tonight’s pot roast Mom put it in the Crock-Pot early this morning. She’s a great cook and—” “Danny!” Sheila cautioned him again. “Mr. Bishop. . . Caleb may already have plans for dinner.” The boy gazed pleadingly at the man and Sheila’s heart ached for her son. A boy who missed the only father he’d ever known. A boy who had found a role model in a star athlete. “Sorry,” Danny said. “As a matter of fact, I don’t have any plans.” Caleb clasped the boy’s shoulder and smiled down at him. “And I’d love to eat some of your mama’s pot roast tonight.” He glanced over Danny’s head and made eye contact with Sheila. “We eat a little later, now that Little League season has begun,” she said. “Come by around six-thirty.” “Thanks,” Caleb said. “I’ll go talk to Mike about finding me a car.” He focused on Danny momentarily. “See you tonight, slugger.” The moment Caleb left the office, Danny jumped up and down, screeching the way only an eleven-year-old boy could. “Caleb Bishop is coming to my house for dinner tonight! The Caleb Bishop. Holy cow, Mom, I’m going to be the envy of every guy at school tomorrow.” Yes, Caleb Bishop was coming to their house for dinner tonight. And she would have to watch them together—Caleb and Danny, father and son—and pretend that everything was normal. Right or wrong, no matter what, her first obligation was to her son. She had to protect him at all costs. Caleb didn’t matter. She didn’t matter. And any feelings she still had for the man were unimportant. She could not allow Caleb to become a part of their lives and then walk away from them, as she was sure he would do. She might be willing to risk her heart again for the pleasure of being with Caleb one more time. But she would never put Danny’s security and happiness at risk. Not even for Caleb. Three “You really didn’t have to agree to Danny’s request to invite Tanner and Devin over here to meet you tonight,” Sheila said, placing the iced tea glasses in the top compartment of the dishwasher. “I know I didn’t.” Caleb handed her the stack of dirty dishes he had removed from the kitchen table. “But why shouldn’t I? I’ve got plenty of time on my hands and I think it means a lot to Danny.” “Oh, you have no idea.” She arranged the plates neatly in a row in the bottom compartment. “My son is one of your biggest fans, and that’s saying quite a lot, considering you’re the idol of every male in Crooked Oak—boy, teenager and man.” “Did I thank you for the delicious dinner?” he asked. Caleb moved in behind Sheila as she leaned over the sink and filled the Crock-Pot with warm, soapy water. She felt him, although he didn’t actually touch her. The heat of his body. The power of his masculinity. The strength of his presence. When she turned to face him, he was close. Too close. She stepped back in an effort to escape his nearness. Her hips pressed into the counter edge. “Yes, you thanked me,” she said. “Twice.” “Just shows how much I enjoyed having dinner with you. . . and your son.” “I imagine it’s a new experience for you, having dinner with a woman and her child.” Sheila took a deep breath and sidestepped Caleb, moving to his left. He grabbed her arm, his hold tight but gentle. “You didn’t want me here tonight, Sheila. Why?” “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re Tallie’s brother and Danny’s idol. Why wouldn’t you be welcome in my home?” “That’s what I’m asking you.” Reaching out with his fingertips, he smoothed back an errant strand of hair that had fallen over her right eye. Their gazes met and locked for a brief moment and Sheila prayed that what she felt didn’t show plainly in her eyes. Caleb was right. She hadn’t wanted him in her home tonight, or any other night for that matter. She pulled out of his grasp, hurried out of the kitchen and into the hallway. If she didn’t give him an answer to his question, he was going to wonder what she was trying so hard to hide. And what reasonable explanation, other than the complete truth, could she give him for not wanting him in her life? The sound of Danny’s voice jerked her quickly from her thoughts. “Yeah, Tanner, he’s here right now and he’s going to stay until my bedtime,” Danny said. “He’s going to autograph my baseball and if I ask him to, he might sign yours and Devin’s, too.” Sheila paused outside her son’s bedroom door. It had been a long time since she’d seen Danny so happy and excited. How could she run Caleb away without breaking Danny’s heart? But if she allowed Caleb to become Danny’s buddy, what then? The potential for disaster was too great. Sooner or later, Caleb might figure out the truth. All he had to do was ask Danny when his birthday was. Covering her mouth with her hands, Sheila bit back a cry of despair. What was she going to do? Caleb followed her out into the hallway, halted at her side and glanced into the bedroom where Danny lay sprawled out on the bed, the telephone glued to his ear. “He thinks my mom is a great cook,” Danny said. “He ate second helpings of everything. And guess what? Bread pudding with sunshine sauce is his favorite dessert just like it is mine!” “You’ve got a great kid there,” Caleb whispered as he lowered his head enough so that his lips almost touched her ear. She closed her eyes, praying that when she spoke her voice wouldn’t quiver. Her heart beat rapidly. Her stomach fluttered wildly. It just wasn’t fair that Caleb could make her feel this way when no other man ever had. “Yes, I know. Danny is a wonderful boy.” She tried not to notice that Caleb had slipped his arm around her waist or that her traitorous body tingled with excitement. Oh, dear God, all he had to do was touch her and she went weak in the knees. And weak in the head, too! she reprimanded herself. Get a grip, girl. Don’t let him do this to you. Hell, don’t do it to yourself. You know better. “Caleb, I appreciate your being so nice to Danny and accepting his invitation to dinner and—” She glanced over her shoulder and the moment he smiled at her, the bottom dropped out of her stomach. “And signing autographs for him and his friends, but. . .well, I just don’t want Danny to think. . .to assume—” Caleb pulled her to the opposite end of the hall, near the living room, then gently eased her up against the wall. His big body hovered over hers. She swallowed hard. “You don’t want Danny to think—to assume—what?” Caleb asked. “He lost his father five years ago and even though Mike and he are pals, what Danny wants more than anything is a dad of his own.” She hesitated momentarily, allowing Caleb to absorb her words and hopefully come to the right conclusion. “You think Danny might see me as a father figure? Is that what’s got you so worried? You don’t want Danny getting too close to me and maybe trying to emulate me? You really don’t approve of me, do you, Sheila?” Oh, great! Hunky-dory great! Typical man, he’d misunderstood. “I don’t approve or disapprove of you. That’s not what I was trying to say.” “Then maybe you’d better spell it out for me.” “All right.” She squared her shoulders and glared directly into his dark brown eyes. “I don’t want you hanging around so much that Danny becomes too attached to you, that he starts thinking of you as a substitute dad. Somebody who’ll be in his life for the long haul. If he becomes too fond of you, it’ll break his heart when you leave Crooked Oak.” Caleb took a step backward, putting a couple of feet between them and allowing Sheila to move into the living room. He stood there in the hallway and thought about what she’d just told him. If for one minute he’d ever really thought about Danny’s situation, he would have realized the danger in spending too much time with the kid. He’d been a fatherless boy himself once. And although his cold, stern grandfather had tried to be a supportive parent, Gramps hadn’t been his real father. Hell, he couldn’t even remember what his own father looked like. Jake and Hank had been old enough to retain memories of their parents, but he’d been a toddler and Tallie an infant when they’d lost their folks. Danny barreled out of his bedroom and down the hall, screeching to a halt right in front of Caleb. “The guys will be over in a few minutes. Tanner’s dad is going to bring them. Mr. Finch is dying to meet you.” Caleb ruffled Danny’s wavy black hair and grinned. The last thing on earth he wanted to do was hurt this boy, to disappoint him in any way. Strange thing was, that for some reason he could see himself in Sheila’s son. Danny was tall and lanky—all arms and legs—the way he’d been as a kid. And the boy loved baseball with a passion that bordered on obsession, just as he did. And Danny was a fatherless boy in need of a role model. He’d been there himself and had experienced every aspect of being the only kid on the team without a dad. His grandfather had been an old man with a bad heart, and although he’d come to all the games, he’d never coached or managed one of Caleb’s Little League teams the way so many fathers did. Caleb could remember being Danny’s age and promising himself that when he had a son, he’d coach the boy’s team. “Danny, you know that I’m going to be in Crooked Oak for just a few months, don’t you? I’m not moving back here permanently. Once I sort out what to do with my life now that my major league career is over, I’ll be leaving.” Danny stared at Caleb with wide, expressive blue eyes identical to his mother’s. “Yeah, sure. I know.” Caleb glanced over Danny’s shoulder, into the living room, directing his gaze at Sheila. She smiled weakly and nodded her head. “I want us to be friends and. . . well, after I leave town, I’ll keep in touch. But. . .I, er. . .” Danny narrowed his eyes, his stare questioning Caleb. “Me and Caleb Bishop friends. Hey, I like the sound of that.” Caleb gripped Danny’s shoulder. “I like the sound of that, too.” He thought their little talk had gone well, that he’d set the record straight and eased Sheila’s mind. Danny was a bright kid. He understood that Caleb wouldn’t be a permanent fixture in his life. Maybe now, Sheila would stop worrying. He could be Danny’s friend without giving the boy any false hopes about him becoming his substitute father, couldn’t he? And he and Sheila could renew their old friendship and temporarily ease each other’s loneliness, without any permanent ties. Caleb waited on the front porch while Sheila checked to make sure Danny was asleep. She had put her son to bed three times since his two young buddies had left, and each time he’d thought of just one more thing to tell Caleb. “This is the last thing, I promise, Mom,” the boy had said ten minutes ago. “Caleb, would you come and watch us practice tomorrow? We’ll be over behind the grammar school, in Old Man Pickens’s field. That’s where the Bulldogs always practice.” “Danny!” Sheila had scolded. “I might drop by for a few minutes,” Caleb had replied. “But don’t mention it to any of the other guys just in case I don’t make it.” Sheila swung open the front door and joined Caleb on the porch. “He’s down for the count,” she said. “He’s asleep and this time he isn’t faking it.” Caleb sat in the porch swing. He knew he should get in his car and drive home instead of lingering, trying to prolong the evening. He dreaded going back to the old homestead alone. He was a man accustomed to company, to being around teammates and fans and—until this past year when he’d been recuperating from the accident—he’d seldom been without a female companion. “I hope you don’t mind that I told Danny I might stop by his practice tomorrow.” She hesitated a couple of seconds before she replied, “No, I don’t mind. He would have been terribly disappointed if you’d said no. I think he’d already told Devin and Tanner that he was going to ask you to come by.” “I promise to play it cool with him,” Caleb said. “He’s a pretty smart boy. He understands that my stay in Crooked Oak is only temporary.” Feeling a sudden chill at his words, Sheila rubbed her hands up and down her arms. “It’s cool, isn’t it, for springtime?” “Come sit by me and I’ll warm you up,” he said, his tone teasing. He’d like to warm her up, melt that frosty exterior and see just how hot Sheila could get He remembered a passionate young girl who had come alive in his arms. Was that fire and passion still alive in her, just waiting to be unleashed? She had told him there was no one special in her life, so that had to mean she was celibate because unless Sheila had changed a great deal, she’d never indulge in casual sex. “Aren’t you leaving?” she asked. “It’s ten-thirty. Past my bedtime. We’re early risers around here.” He patted the wood slat bottom of the swing. “Come sit with me before I go home. It’s a beautiful spring night. Stars and moon and fresh country air.” “You don’t want to go home, do you?” “What?” “I said, you don’t want to go home. You don’t want to be alone.” “Smart lady.” “Why didn’t you go to Nashville and stay with Tallie and Peyton instead of coming back to Crooked Oak if you hate being alone?” “I thought I wanted a quiet, isolated place to hide away,” he admitted. “But I’ve discovered that I’m not a loner. I like contact with other people far too much. Especially certain old friends.” Sheila laughed. Dear Lord, he was such a flirt. Such a charmer. Those things about Caleb hadn’t changed. “Oh, all right, I’ll sit in the swing with you for fifteen minutes and then you’ll go home and I’ll go in to bed.” “Mmm.” He grinned mischievously. “We could skip the fifteen minutes in the swing and forget about my going home and just head straight to your bed.” She knew he was joking, or at least halfway joking, and wondered how long it had been since he’d laughed and kidded around since the accident. She sat with him, their side-by-side bodies filling the narrow swing. He slid his arm around her shoulders. She allowed him to touch her, to bring her body close to his, and for a moment she closed her eyes and pretended that there was more than loneliness prompting his actions. “How long’s it been?” he asked, his voice low and husky. “How long’s what been?” she replied. “Since you got some.” Sheila giggled. “What a question to ask me. You’re certainly not a romantic are you, Caleb?” “Nope. So?” “‘So’ what?” “So, how long has it been since you got some?” “For your information, I don’t get some,” she said. “I have sex. I make love.” “Okay. How long’s it been since you had sex or made love?” “Do you think that’s any of your business?” “Maybe not.” He slid his left hand beneath her hair and caressed the nape of her neck. She shuddered. “What if I tell you how long it’s been for me? Then will you tell me?” “Maybe I don’t want to know,” she said. “Sure you do.” He nuzzled the side of her neck. She shuddered again. “I haven’t had sex in a year. Not since before the accident.” His tongue circled her ear. Her mouth formed a surprised oval as she silently gasped. “I—I find that hard to believe. I’m sure there have been dozens of women who—” He kissed her ear at the same moment he speared his fingers into her hair and grasped her head. “Caleb, don’t do this to me.” “I could have gotten it on with some of my nurses and even with a willing fan or two who sneaked into my hospital room, but I was in no shape to fool around. And when I recovered enough to go home to my apartment, I went through several months of deep depression.” “I’m sorry. Tallie told me how worried she’s been about you.” “Fess up, honey,” he said. “I told you, so now it’s your turn to tell me. How long’s it been?” “Five years,” she said softly. “Five years!” He grabbed her chin and turned her to face him. “Are you saying you haven’t had sex with anyone since your husband died?” “Yes, that’s what I’m saying.” “But why?” “Because I don’t have sex with a man unless he’s important to me, unless I care about him and. . . Don’t look at me that way.” “What way?” he asked. “How am I looking at you?” “Don’t.” She jumped up from the swing and headed for the front door, but Caleb caught her before her hand reached the knob. He encircled her body with his arms and pulled her back up against his chest. “You need me as much as I need you. We could be so good for each other.” He turned her around and lowered his mouth to hers. Not only did she want his kiss, she accepted it with enthusiasm, opening her mouth for his invasion. Hot and demanding and all-consuming, his tongue pillaged while his big hand held her head in place and his body pressed intimately against hers. His sex pulsed against her mound, requesting permission for entrance. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926258&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. 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