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The Baby Project Extended Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

“I want you to be the father of my baby, but, of course, we wouldn’t have sex,” Liz Kingston said as she stood near the exam table in her ob-gyn office, crossing her arms and planting her feet to make her case. “You’re the most decent guy I know.”

Dr. Brett Stevens immediately got up and walked to the door, cracking it and taking a quick sweep up and down the hallway. Satisfied no one was eavesdropping, he shut it and returned to his exam stool.

Liz adjusted her lab coat a little nervously but made sure to use her most chipper tone of voice. “It wouldn’t be stressful. We can do it the regular way, via test tube.”

Brett rolled back his stool—and his eyes. “Liz, darling. I’m your best friend. You know I’d do anything for you. But a child… I just think that would make our friendship awkward, especially since Kevin and I are thinking of adopting.”

Liz nodded to show Brett she understood. She was genuinely happy that he’d found happiness with his longtime partner. She just didn’t know anyone else she could ask for such a favor.

She made the teeny-tiny gesture with her hand. “I need a little bit of sperm is all. Hardly any.” Brett had a pained expression on his face, a combination, she was sure, of discomfort and a genuine desire to help her.

He understood everything she’d been through the past couple of years. Her struggles to have a baby for over two years. Her divorce. The endometriosis thing. The fact that she was the only sibling in her family who didn’t have kids or wasn’t pregnant—and currently her two sisters were. She needed a fresh start, and she’d done her best to achieve that, with a new job, a new life back in her hometown. But the missing part was that she wanted a baby, desperately.

“You said yourself the endometriosis is bad and I’m running out of time,” she said, trying not to tear up. “I’m just a little nervous using an anonymous sperm donor, someone I don’t know at all.”

“The sperm bank process is more controlled than you think. You can pick hair color and eye color and even height. I know the control-freak part of you hates not knowing everything, but you can actually select a lot of traits.”

“I want more than that, things you can’t list on paper. I want someone who’s intelligent and kind, and who isn’t a serial killer or a compulsive shopper—or, God forbid, who isn’t a vegetarian. And someone who eats all-organic would be nice.” She was half teasing about the last one but still…you are what you eat, right?

Brett rolled his eyes. “You want non-GMO sperm? Isn’t that asking a bit much?” He wheeled his chair closer and grabbed hold of her hand, which really did make her tear up. Outside the window, the rows of cherry trees along Main Street were in glorious bloom, the earth fully alive after the long winter. In her heart, however, she felt no such awakening. She took one look at the serious expression on her friend’s face and braced for what was coming.

“You also want someone who loves big old houses and flower gardens, who would share a glass of wine on the wraparound porch, who would lie around and read thrillers on a rainy Saturday, and who loves one-eyed dogs no one else wants.”

“I’m not adopting that dog,” Liz said. He was referring to Gizmo, the shelter dog her sister kept wanting her to keep and who’d had no trouble falling in insta-love with her. If only she could find a man as faithful.

She thought she’d found a man like that once, thousands of miles away from their little hometown of Buckleberry Bend, North Carolina, during the year after her divorce she’d spent doing Doctors Without Borders, but he hadn’t felt the same. Brett massaged the tension out of her right trapezius muscle. “Don’t give up on your dream yet, kiddo. It’s not too late.”

“I’m thirty-two years old, divorced, and I have endometriosis. And I haven’t had a date since my grandmother tried to fix me up with that guy whose first name was the same as my mom’s maiden name. She kept trying to say we weren’t related, but I knew better.”

“Well, this is the South.” Brett’s mouth curved up in a half smile. “Can’t blame a grandma for trying.”

“The point is, we know what my prospects are for getting pregnant the natural way.” She held her fingers up in a big, fat O. “I don’t mind having some laboratory assistance to help me conceive. I just wish I could find someone normal to help me out with the, er, donation.”

“Normal men are afraid of you.”

She shot him a look.

“They are. You don’t show soft edges around anybody.”

“No one’s going to take advantage of me again, Brett. Ever.”

He threw his hands up in the air. “Okay, okay. After that scumbag of an ex-husband cheated on you, I believe that, sweetie, but it’s okay to let people in once in a while. You can’t find love if you’re not open to it.”

Ouch. That was a low blow, but she wouldn’t let it take her down. “I’m never going to put my fate in the hands of another man as long as I live. I’m settled back in town, and I have a great job. And if I have to use a sperm bank, fine. I’ll do it. Now’s the time.”

Brett snapped his tablet shut. “All right, then. It’s your choice. I can help you to get in to see the fertility specialist in Charlotte for artificial insemination for your next cycle. You should probably go on Clomid for maximum success.”

Liz smiled. “I’m going to do this. I’m going to take charge of my own future.”

A nervous thrill ran through her, one that made her a little less apprehensive about picking a random sperm sample from a sperm bank.

She’d made her decision, then. She was going to control her destiny and do everything she could to fulfill her dream of becoming a mother. She wasn’t going to wait for a man to come along.

Because time was running out.

***

Grant Wilbanks walked at a fast clip through JFK Airport, keeping an eye out for the nearest shop to grab a candy bar. He’d eaten his last real meal eighteen hours ago before he left Nairobi, a bowl of githeri, a traditional dish consisting of beans, corn, and other vegetables. It had been satisfying enough, but he’d only had junk food since: airport peanuts, trail mix, and bad coffee on the plane. He was craving a big, juicy cheeseburger with the works, but he barely had enough time to grab a Snickers and haul ass onto his final flight to Charlotte.

As an international TV journalist for a major network, he had a face that was instantly recognizable around the world, but he rarely took advantage of his celebrity. Except for now, when he was so hungry he thought he might just use a friendly smile and a nod of acknowledgement to cut a line and make his plane.

He’d just snagged a Snickers from the candy display and walked the short distance to the checkout line when a woman hauling a baby stroller with one hand and holding a little girl’s hand in the other steered in front of him in line, effectively cutting off his straight path to the cashier.

He practically bumped into the stroller. In it was a bald baby sucking on the ear of a plastic bunny toy. Cute or not cute, he really didn’t have an opinion. Babies were just…babies. Fine for other people to cuddle.

“Oops, excuse me,” he said.

The woman didn’t hear him because the little girl at her side, who couldn’t have been more than three or four, was tugging insistently on her arm saying, “Mommy. Mommy, I want this.” She waved a little blue stuffed bear in front of her mother.

“Kimberly Marie, put that bear back right now. We are not getting that.”

The cashier paused in ringing up the order, which Grant saw contained a large water bottle, a pack of gum, and a bag of peanut butter crackers.

“Mommy, I need it,” the little girl said, on the verge of tears, waggling the bear by a leg. “I need it.”

The mom bent down to talk to her child. “We have plenty of bears at home. We’ve got to get on our plane now, okay?”

“Delta Flight 1502 to Charlotte,” a voice boomed from the speaker system. “Last call, now boarding at Gate 14.”

Come on, lady. No more negotiating. He was so, so glad he led the life he did, traveling to report in dangerous, war-torn countries. The world was his playground. No one anchored him to one place. He was free to be himself, no ties, no strings, women whenever he wanted them without the messy complications of a relationship. And he loved it that way.

A typical day in the field involved wearing a flak jacket and helmet, and traveling with a convoy of soldiers heading from one war zone to another. The adventure and risk kept the adrenaline pumping and proved to him he wasn’t meant for any other kind of life. Or maybe the constant adrenaline rush merely served to help him outrun his demons. Either way, his life was what it was, and he was content with it.

He just should not have risked taking that Kenyan family out of the work camp, even if it had been the only way to get their feverish, short-of-breath child to the hospital. How the hell did he know it would lead to an international incident that had damn near got him fired? He’d been penalized, pulled out, torn away from a humanitarian crisis and the reporting he could do to make the world aware.

His father, were he alive, would not be pleased. Arthur Wilbanks had been the best of the best, a world-class journalist himself who’d died in the line of duty. He’d be ashamed of the fact that Grant had interfered and was being sent home for punishment.

His father had played by the rules, but even that hadn’t kept him safe. He’d been reporting on a story at the time of his death in a war-torn nation that surely would have garnered him a Pulitzer if he hadn’t been killed by a random grenade. His mother, a photographer, had been with him. They’d died together, orphaning him instantly at the age of ten.

Grant understood the sacrifice it had taken to reach the upper echelons of his industry. It was a raw, gritty job that required the utmost dedication to his nomadic existence. And he understood the cardinal rule of journalists. Do not interfere. Well, he’d interfered, and now he was fucked.

“The bear’s not for me,” the little girl said, tugging on her mom’s sweater in a last-ditch effort. “It’s for the baby. He needs it, Mommy.”

“Put it back,” the mom said, giving the little girl a nudge in the direction of a large pyramidal display of bears in the center of an aisle, half blue, half pink.

The little girl stayed put and pulled out her lower lip. “You come with me.”

“Honey, I can’t. We’re in line.”

Grant glanced at his watch. Three minutes before they shut the cabin doors. He couldn’t miss that plane. Not that he was in a hurry to get to the place where he was being exiled, Buckleberry Bend, North Carolina—a quiet, off-the-map town where no one would give a rat’s ass who he was. Even his aunt, who was letting him hide out at her house, wouldn’t be around—she was off gallivanting through Europe on a senior citizen tour.

And then he thought of her, and his heart lurched uncomfortably. Elizabeth Kingston. The sexy, gutsy doctor he’d met a year ago while she was on a polio project with Doctors Without Borders. She lived in that small town, too.

She’d interfered with everything. Insisted on doing everything in that little African village, going everywhere, leaving no person unfound, no child unvaccinated. She’d laughed at him when he’d told her the true job of a journalist was to observe, catalog events, report. He wasn’t a damn missionary, for God’s sakes.

What would she think of him now? He could hear her tinkling, sonorous laugh. See her gorgeous brown eyes dance with mischief, those gold hoop earrings she always wore catching the sunlight as she agreed with his punishment: banishment to East Podunk, North Carolina, to work on a crappy documentary over the summer until things settled down. She’d certainly have no pity for him after the unceremonious way he’d dumped her after their torrid affair.

But perhaps she could forgive him.

There was a time when he’d believed he could change and become the kind of man she wanted, the kind to settle down. She’d been the only woman who’d ever made him reconsider that policy. But in the end it came down to knowing himself, knowing he was meant to roam the world, doing the work his father began.

The little girl stomped her foot and let out a cry. Her mother looked desperate.

“Excuse me,” Grant said, flashing a big smile. The mom looked up. He saw the moment recognition dawned. This was the typical pattern. Grant wasn’t vain, but he’d be a fool not to know his looks turned heads. For now, he’d do almost anything not to miss his plane.

“Oh,” the mother said. “why, you’re…you’re Grant Wilbanks.”

“Indeed, I am,” he said, making sure his aristocratic British accent rolled off his tongue quite elegantly.

“I’m so sorry to disrupt your parenting,” he said, “but I’ve a plane to catch that’s going to leave the tarmac in a few minutes. Would you be so kind as to allow me to purchase the bear?”

“Oh no, I couldn’t—”

“Please,” he said, still sounding quite charming, if he did say so himself. “I insist.” He turned to the little girl. “Tell you what. Run and get a pink one, too. Then you and your baby brother will both have one. If it’s okay with Mummy.”

The little girl looked at him with wide eyes. The mother stammered and put a hand around her daughter’s shoulder. “Oh, fine. It’s fine, sweetie. Thank you so much.”

Grant paid for the candy bar and the bears and the woman’s other things, too. He would’ve paid for a sirloin dinner with all the trimmings and a bottle of Dom Pérignon if that’s what it took to get him the hell out of there. As he patted the little girl on the head, she smiled up at him sweetly and cuddled the bear to her neck. She was a cute little bugger, but like all children, the cuteness tended to fade into annoyance after a minute or two. He waggled his fingers at the baby, said good-bye to the frazzled mum, and sprinted for his plane, clutching his giant Snickers bar in his hand. And thanking God he’d never have any children of his own.

CHAPTER TWO

Liz shoved an organic frozen dinner into her microwave at the end of a long, ball-bust day. She’d delivered two babies, seen an afternoon’s worth of patients, and attended a staff meeting at the hospital. It was great to be making a difference in her hometown and she was fortunate to be part of a busy practice. She loved being busy, but sometimes she felt as if her work were taking over her life.

Case in point: her refrigerator was not looking good. An apple, an old carton of half & half, and a bottle of wine she’d opened almost a month ago when Brett and Kevin brought takeout for dinner, stared back at her from the otherwise empty shelves. The microwave dinged, and she took her prepared meal into the living room, where she sat in an old beige recliner, the only thing she’d brought from her apartment with her ex because it had been hers before her marriage.

The chair was ratty but comfy. Actually, it was the only comfy thing in her place. It was also the only piece of furniture. But it was hers and that meant something. As she ate, she tried to picture what her place would look like with more things—a pretty couch, some bright pillows. The odds and ends and photos, maybe a plant or two, that make up a real life.

It wasn’t so long ago she’d started a life like that, full of hopes and dreams. Until her husband, the man she’d dated since high school, cheated on her with Daphne Marie Henderson, who owned the pet grooming business in town. At the time, they hadn’t even been married a year. She thought Parker was dropping off his mother’s dog for a shampoo and cut, but he was clearly getting some other services performed as well.

She hadn’t even suspected a thing until she’d come home early one day and found the bedroom door closed. In her mind, she could still hear the creaking of the bed. She’d made herself forget the other sounds she’d heard coming from behind that door.

That was enough for her to leave every single stick of furniture behind. All the wedding china and the pretty crystal wineglasses and the cute gadgets and appliances. As for those pretty throw pillows she’d picked out…well, her ex could shove those somewhere dark and remote. She hadn’t wanted one single thing he’d touched.

So her new life was a bit sparse. That was all right. It was simply the price for purging Parker—and all the attendant stuff—from her life for good.

The banging began sometime around her third bite. Judging by the way the wind had begun tossing tree branches around and the way the room had suddenly become dark as night, a late spring storm was brewing, and it had probably jogged a pesky shutter loose on the house next door.

The house, a big beautiful behemoth of a thing, had gorgeous bones and a fine yard, and gardens that were full of old-fashioned perennials from years gone by. But it was falling into disrepair, leaving her elderly neighbor, Dottie, unable to keep up with all its demands for care. In fact, Dottie planned to put it on the market as soon as she returned from living the life on a European river cruise, before moving to Florida before winter hit. She’d given Liz a key in case anything went wrong, and had asked her to watch over things while she was gone. Liz knew she’d better go and secure the shutter before it ripped right off the house, causing more problems and expense.

Thunder rumbled. Liz ran the short distance between her tiny craftsman bungalow and the large, turreted Queen Anne Victorian, stepping onto the large wraparound porch, noticing that the potted petunias on the steps were wilting—also her problem. She was supposed to be watering them daily. The parched flowers were yet more evidence of her out-of-control work hours.

Big, fat droplets of rain began to fall. She spied the shutter as belonging to a window under cover of the porch. As she secured it to its latch, she noticed something else—a soft meowing, but a look around confirmed there was no cat in sight. Dottie fed all kinds of stray creatures, and one push of her built-in pet door indicated it wasn’t locked. Hardly anyone locked doors or windows in Buckleberry Bend anyway. Liz bent down and swung the pet door until she was able to grab and open it.

“C’mon, kitty,” she called inside the opening. “Come on out. No food supply in there for you the next few weeks.”

A small snow-white kitten emerged from the shadows. By the size, she’d guess it was around six months. The kitten blinked its eyes and stared at her, frozen in fright.

“Come here, sweetie,” she called. Thunder rumbled again in the distance. It was about to freaking pour. At the sound, the kitten jumped and ambled even deeper into the kitchen.

Worried that the thing would never find its way back out, Liz ran back to her house and got Dottie’s key, letting herself in and flicking on the kitchen light. The cat had scurried away somewhere, and after searching the rooms on the lower floor, was nowhere to be found.

A glance at her watch told her it was six thirty. Maybe she’d give the cat a few minutes to show up. Her television wasn’t connected, despite her being back from Doctors Without Borders for almost a year now, so turning it on for a few minutes sounded suddenly appealing.

On impulse, she filled Dottie’s ever-present kettle with water and walked into the living room to flick on the TV. She knew Dottie wouldn’t mind; they’d spent plenty of time chatting over tea made from that kettle. Not that Liz had a lot of time to chat but Dottie was a force. And very persistent, especially at teatime.

A few minutes later, Liz was sitting down with a cup of tea while she’d lured out the kitty with a can of cat food she’d found in a cupboard. It felt good to be watching TV, a simple activity enjoyed by normal people, surrounded by pretty yellow and blue furniture, cheery prints, and soft curtains on the windows. A lived-in home with a history, something she longed to have.

The voice of the nightly news anchor brought her attention to the screen. “Chief foreign correspondent Grant Wilbanks has gotten embroiled in a scandal after smuggling a family of four out of war-torn Kenya, close to the border between Kenya and Somalia.”

Liz choked on her tea. She leaned forward in the floral-upholstered chair. The footage of the man flashing on the screen snatched all her breath away, as images of Grant Wilbanks always did.

His dark hair, cut short and exact, remained controlled even in dust storms or rain, and now stirred ever so slightly in the acrid African wind. He had tanned skin that accentuated his swimming-pool blue eyes, with little crinkles around them that read like an interesting road map on his GQ-worthy face, topped off with a square, manly George Clooney jaw. Tall, well-built, and lean, the man was better than an A-list actor playing the part of an adventurer. He was the real thing.

Grant was a real-life daredevil who had no compunction about joining wartime convoys, dodging land mines, or riding in ATVs in the hundred-degree heat. He would risk anything for the story. A Pulitzer was surely in his future.

He was Hemingway, Indiana Jones, Bond, all rolled into one brave—or crazy—package. She’d fallen for him hard. Oh, how could she not? Nairobi had been a romantic adventure, like something out of a movie. They’d worked unbelievably hard by day—she to fight polio and help deliver basic health care, he to report on the ravages of war—and at night they’d shared a passion unlike anything she’d ever experienced.

“Wilbanks is said to have provided false documents to the border patrol for the family’s passage to a neighboring hospital for their sick child. The Kenyan government is claiming the husband of the family is a rebel spy who had his passport revoked, but Wilbanks claims he only arranged for false documents so the entire family could flee to get access to health care.”

Did it surprise Liz that he was smuggling refugee families out of a country? Yes. Yes, it did. He played by the book, and believed his job was to report, to inform, to bring back the truth. It wasn’t to change the political landscape by being a rebel, by taking action. They’d had passionate discussions about the topic, and she’d always told him she was grateful she was a doctor—her job was simply to treat. So this dramatic feat was unlike him.

He was adventurous, not crazy. He followed the rules. Most of the time.

She’d gotten involved with him despite her better judgment. She’d been newly divorced, vulnerable. He’d looked her up because his aunt had told him Liz was spending a year there as a doctor. She’d already been there nine months when she met him. The attraction had been magnetic, and their affair was turbulent. Tempestuous. Unforgettable.

In the end, he’d chosen his daredevil life over her. Of course he had. He was a world-class reporter at the peak of his career, and she’d been a fool to believe he would ever compromise his job for her.

She’d waited for him at the Nairobi train station far into the middle of the night. When the last train had finally arrived, he’d been nowhere to be found. She’d thought what they’d had for those few months had been so much more than an affair. Clearly, she’d been wrong.

Liz rubbed her chest, where she experienced a sudden pang. Even now, a year later, the pain still pricked. Another reason not to wait for a man and to follow through with her baby plan.

The news went to commercial and Liz let her eyes wander to Dottie’s pleasantly stuffed bookshelves. There were scattered photos of Grant, taken years ago—some from when he was just a boy, when he’d come to live with her after his parents died, others from high school, and one of he and Dottie together at his college graduation, his arm around her, smiling his devilishly handsome smile.

Liz hadn’t known him until their paths had crossed a continent away, because Dottie had only lived here the past ten years, and Liz had been gone getting her schooling by the time she’d moved here. The reminders of Grant, both on TV and surrounding her, felt odd.

She was startled out of her thoughts by someone calling her name. Something flickered in the hall—a shadow. Man-sized. A figure suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Hello, Elizabeth,” the intruder said, the smooth tones of his accent curling through the air.

A scream tore from Liz’s throat as the man moved toward her. Instinctively, she took the cup of scalding hot tea she held and tossed it—right at the man’s crotch, just as he reached to flick on a table lamp.

He dodged, the tea barely missing the target.

She gasped as recognition finally dawned. The man on TV…was the same man standing before her. In the flesh. Grant. In the middle of Dottie’s ruffly living room, not against his usual backdrop of bombs, refugees, or even a lion, giraffe, or a rhino or two.

Liz tried to speak but her throat felt as if it were clogged with Kleenex—and terror. She stood there, speechless, until sense returned. He looked…the same. Still stunningly handsome. Still able to send shivers shooting up her spine and a hot blush rushing to her cheeks.

“Now, now,” he said, his blue eyes full of mischief. “You do remember I always prefer coffee over tea?” This was why the man was still alive after covering war zones for the past ten years in the most dangerous parts of the world. He possessed the reflexes of a cat, plus a lightning-quick wit that had doubtless saved his fine, gorgeous ass many a time.

“Oh my God.” For once, her cool surgeon’s composure failed her, but at least speech had returned. He stood there looking amused, dressed impeccably, as always, even though he wore old faded jeans that caressed all his muscle and a plain black T-shirt, which highlighted his dark, wavy hair and his black, black soul.

His gaze raked her up and down in a way that suddenly made her aware of every muscle fiber in her body. He was taller than she remembered, larger. His eyes were still so piercingly blue and intense, those eyes that had seen so much tragedy, so much of the ugliest parts of life. No wonder they held such a cynical bent. Yet at one time they’d devoured her, and apparently, one glance from him was still capable of raising goose bumps all over her arms.

Sense slowly returned, Liz’s own gaze flicking in horror from him to her teacup. “I’m sorry, I-I was startled and—” She paused for a breath. “Are you all right?” she asked. She was pretty sure the hot water missed his crotch, but part of her wished it hadn’t.

“After dodging second-degree burns? Couldn’t be better.” His fine, full mouth curved up in an irresistible half smile.

Oh, that accent! It was so…charming, vibrating down deep to places that had lay dormant far too long. She crossed her arms, unwilling to allow that. “What the hell are you doing here? You scared the crap out of me.”

“I fell asleep in the study, but perhaps I should ask you the same thing?”

“The shutter was making a terrible racket. And I’ve been here talking to a cat, watching TV. How could you not have heard me?”

“I must’ve been sleeping like the dead. Forgive me. I haven’t slept much for the past few days.”

Forgive me. Words she’d once longed to hear.

“How are you, Liz?” he asked softly. “I’ve often wondered how you’ve gotten on.”

She stared at him. He acted like a friend, like he cared. And she could not allow that to mess with her mind. A bevy of emotions tumbled through her. Confusion on seeing him after a whole year had gone by. Sadness that they’d actually planned to be together, and he’d never showed up. He’d simply texted her two words: I’m sorry.

She’d gotten the text as she was boarding the plane back home, a week after they were supposed to meet for a trip to Mombasa. A week to sightsee and just be together before they each headed off to their separate lives. During their months working in Nairobi, they’d stolen every spare moment to be together and their imminent separation had been gut wrenching.

For her, anyway.

She’d foolishly told him she loved him. Embarrassment flooded her now. She should have known then that he simply didn’t have it in him to settle down. He was too…independent. Powerful. Good at his job. She could picture him among war and disaster and on safari and in jungles…but sitting at a kitchen table, wiping peas off a baby’s chin? No. She should have known. After all, he’d never said I love you back.

She’d gotten over him. Blamed it on all the confusion and loneliness after her divorce, when she’d gone overseas to clear her head. That had probably been the reason she’d fallen so hard and so fast. He’d been a diversion from her own pain. She’d just gotten a little carried away, that was all. That was how she’d come to think of their time together—intense, passionate, but really, just a fling. She could put it in its place and move on.

“I’m here, on assignment,” he said. His voice was still low, and his gaze seemed tentative, full of emotion—but with him, she could never be certain what he was feeling, and she sure as hell wasn’t about to imagine he’d felt something for her. “Frankly, I’m a bit banished.”

“I-I just heard,” she said, gesturing to the TV. “You’re staying here until things blow over?”

He waved his fine hand elegantly in the air. He was a man who spent days and nights in dugouts, yet hadn’t lost those damn aristocratic manners. “I’ll be staying in your little town for the next month or two. On assignment, actually. And to help fix up this place before my aunt puts it on the market.”

Oh, couldn’t he have chosen to hide out elsewhere? He was a man who could be at home anywhere around the world. Why of all places had he come to the tiny town of Buckleberry Bend, North Carolina?

Liz closed her eyes, hoping that maybe he—and the sudden hot and cold sensations rolling through her, the weakness in her knees, the pulse pounding in her ears—would magically be gone when she opened them, that this was all just a hallucination brought on by a sudden spring storm and a very stressful day. Either that or she’d just entered early menopause and was having hot flashes. Another reason she had to put her baby plan into action as soon as possible.

Grant Wilbanks had always been a stunning man. Tall, commanding, and better with age. Time had been kind to him. She was glad to see he looked hale and hearty, not an ounce of fat on his muscular frame. But this time she was not going to fall under his spell. The fact that his jeans were splashed a little made him seem more human somehow. It reminded her that he was just a man, an imperfect man who had hurt her because they had wanted different things. Her pride was stung but she’d survive that. This would be a positive experience, having him next door. She’d learn that she’d been in a difficult place in Nairobi, figuring things out after her divorce, and now with her head so much clearer she’d realize he wasn’t all that fabulous. So there.

A flash of lightning was followed by a crack of thunder so fierce it sounded like the chimney was splitting. Rain suddenly beat down machine-gun-fire style on the roof. Out the kitchen window, Liz could see it pouring in sheets off the sun porch, where a rusted piece of spouting hung off like a dangling limb.

Another crack of thunder, and the lights flickered and went out.

Oh, what was the universe telling her? She did not want to be within a fifty-mile radius of this man, let alone under the same roof. In the dark. Sealed in by the beating rain. She’d just decided to make a run for home, that getting drenched would be a small price to pay, when they heard a ping, ping, ping coming from the kitchen. Followed by a drip, drip, drip.

Grant switched on his phone light. “Perhaps you might know where my aunt keeps her candles?”

He followed her into the kitchen, where she opened Dottie’s junk drawer and pulled out several small vanilla-scented candles and a box of matches. She groped around for some small saucers, placed the candles on them, and lit them.

He’d picked up one of the saucers to shine some light on the ceiling. Liz barely noticed the leaks. She was too busy staring at his lean torso, the muscles of his arms as he stretched to hold the candle high to assess the problem.

He was still a fine, fine looking man.

“Have you a pail?” he asked.

“They’re in the garage,” she said. Too far away. The garage was detached and clear past the house.

He began opening cabinets, pulling out pots and pans, moving with a certain elegance of motion even in the mini-crisis. Together they worked furiously to collect all the water, dodging the drips to set out the pots.

“This place is a bloody disaster,” he said, but his mouth was turned up in a little smile. And he was looking at her so oddly, in a way that sent waves of heat flashing all through her.

Liz held a pot at arm’s length, collecting the water, which pinged loudly as it hit the bottom. “It’s a beautiful house, but a bit of a catastrophe, yes. And it’s getting to be too much for Dottie.”

He took the pot from her, their fingers grazing. Their eyes met, reluctantly it seemed, but something sudden and shocking snapped between them, and it became impossible to look away. For a second, time stood still. Those dark eyes seared through her, as if he could see everything, all her secrets, every feeling she hid so well from the rest of the world. Every nerve ending remembered him, what it was like for him to touch her in the quiet of those warm, velvet nights, to run his hands over her hot skin. They’d been together for a brief time in such crazy, uncertain circumstances. Everything they’d done had been with an intensity of passion she’d never experienced before—or since.

She reminded herself it had been a fantasy. Nothing more.

He at last broke eye contact and carried the candle stub to the cupboard, where he opened a cabinet door and rummaged through, pulling out a bottle of wine.

“Now that the crisis is contained—for now—would you care to join me for dinner? I brought some food from Mario’s.”

Of course the food came from the best restaurant in town. Italian. Her favorite. In response, Liz’s stomach rumbled, protesting over the lack of food all day. The three bites of the frozen dinner she’d managed to inhale weren’t holding her well.

She hesitated. She should go home, but it was fricking avalanche-pouring. Even the brief run next door would soak her to the bone.

“Come on, Liz,” he cajoled. “After all, we’re going to be neighbors.”

She tried to ignore how the simple syllable of her name rolled easily off his tongue in that rich-as-chocolate British baritone.

He removed a Styrofoam container from the fridge and cracked it open under her nose. Pasta. Red sauce and meatballs.

“I see you’re getting your daily dose of animal product,” she said. “Thanks, but I’m a vegetarian.” The fact that he’d forgotten something so elemental to her personality disappointed her unreasonably.

He rummaged in the dark fridge for another container.

The smell of garlic and cheese wafted out. In the dim light, she couldn’t really tell what kind of pasta it was but it smelled amazing. And there was a giant piece of garlic bread on the side, her own personal crack. Her mouth watered. Oh God.

“Artichoke penne,” he said, still waving it under her nose. “I remembered.”

Liz stepped back and nearly fell over a stockpot in the middle of the floor. She hadn’t been in his presence more than ten minutes and he was already tempting her with his gorgeous body and with his food. And surely Mr. Carnivore hadn’t ordered that meal for her. Of course not. Maybe his tastes in food had changed, although when she knew him, “vegetable” wasn’t part of his vocabulary.

“No thanks,” she said in a neutral voice. “I really need to get home.”

“Oh,” he said, looking disappointed. “I was hoping to have a talk.”

She frowned. “A talk? Are you dying? Did you have a religious conversion? Did your aunt tell you to do it?”

He’d set the plates on the table and began spooning the food onto them, but now he stopped and looked at her. “None of the above. I’d simply like a chance to make things right between us.”

She met his intense blue gaze. Never would she let him know how she’d waited all night for him to show at the train station, hours after the last train had pulled in. She knew what kind of man he was—one who was used to women salivating all over him, and she’d never give him the satisfaction of knowing how much she’d cared. How she’d thought what they had was different.

“Please,” he said, pulling out her chair as if this were a five-star restaurant instead of Dottie’s outdated bright-yellow kitchen. “Stay and eat.”

She did sit, and gave into her hunger. But as far as he was concerned, that was all she was giving in to, no matter how appealing he might be.

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