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Authors: Kathleen O'Brien

For the Love of Family

BOOK: For the Love of Family
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She did a little skip on the sand to demonstrate her delight

Matt caught the scent of her perfume, drifting out alongside the salty brine of the ocean.

 

He should get out of here. He should take his jacket and go home.

 

Before he did something really stupid.

 

“Belle.” He stopped. They hadn’t gone more than about five hundred feet, but the people back at the site were silhouetted against the sunset, oddly anonymous and far away. He turned toward her. He could just make out her features in the dying light, but, even so, arousal shot through him like a lust-tipped arrow.

 

“Belle…”

 

“Yes?” She sounded slightly breathless. He wondered whether she could feel it, too. Something arcing between them, tugging at thoughts they both knew they shouldn’t be having…

Dear Reader,

 

I remember it so well. When I got the call from Harlequin Books offering to buy my first book, I struggled to sound professional during the conversation. Then I jumped up and down like a madwoman, shouting with delight, scaring the heck out of my baby boy, who’d been trying to sleep. “The sale” is a dream come true. And writers know how many people cherish this same dream but never get the call.

 

That first book,
Sunswept Summer
for Harlequin Presents, was published twenty-two years ago. Since then I have written more than thirty romances, for Harlequin Presents, Harlequin Temptation, Signature Select…and, for the past several years, Harlequin Superromance.

 

Along the way it turned into so much more than a job. It blessed me with an incredible family of creative people who have become my best friends, my inspiration, my education, my consolation…and my laughter. Harlequin writers are always ready to commiserate or celebrate with one another, lifting a cyber-champagne either way.

 

Harlequin editors (especially mine!) are sharp as tacks at finding a story’s flaws, and yet unfailingly nurturing, never forgetting that our “product” is a piece of our own heart. They make me want to be better.

 

Harlequin readers are…well, you’re the reason we write. You come to our stories with your imaginations full-throttle, and then you take the time to suggest ideas, point out missteps, share your own experiences. You give us the energy to write the next one.

 

I’d like to congratulate a wonderful company! And I’d also like to thank the writers, editors and readers who have made this career such a joy!

 

Kathleen O’Brien

 

P.S. Visit Kathleen at www.KOBrienOnline.com.

For the Love of Family
Kathleen O’Brien

To Tara Taylor Quinn, Karina Bliss and
Janice Kay Johnson, who made writing this book
so much fun. And, of course, to Victoria Curran,
who with patience and good humor kept us
all on track. It was wonderful
working with you, ladies!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kathleen O’Brien was a feature writer and TV critic before marrying a fellow journalist. Motherhood, which followed soon after, was so marvelous she turned to writing novels, which could be done at home. Coming from a wonderfully crazy Southern Gothic family herself, she loves writing about people coping with big, bad challenges and overcoming them with courage, love and a little dumb luck! She fully believes what her older sister used to tell her: “
Normal
is just someone you don’t know well enough yet.”

Books by Kathleen O’Brien

HARLEQUIN SUPERROMANCE

1015—WINTER BABY
*

1047—BABES IN ARMS
*

1086—THE REDEMPTION OF MATTHEW QUINN
*

1146—THE ONE SAFE PLACE
*

1176—THE HOMECOMING BABY

1231—THE SAINT

1249—THE SINNER

1266—THE STRANGER

1382—CHRISTMAS IN HAWTHORN BAY

1411—EVERYTHING BUT THE BABY

1441—TEXAS BABY

1572—TEXAS WEDDING

HARLEQUIN SINGLE TITLE

MYSTERIES OF LOST ANGEL INN

“The Edge of Memory”

SIGNATURE SELECT

HAPPILY NEVER AFTER

QUIET AS THE GRAVE

CHAPTER ONE

B
ELLE
C
ARSON PAUSED
outside the Yardley Hotel ballroom, trying to work up the nerve to go in. Sucking in her bare stomach, she straightened her black wig and licked her lips, though she could hardly feel them beneath the inch-thick, neon-red gloss. She squared her shoulders, which set the metallic fringe on her tiny gold bra jingling.

A pair of middle-aged ladies strolling through the lobby squinted toward her disapprovingly. Maybe she shouldn’t have left her coat in the car. With her costume on full display, the ladies probably assumed she was the stripper for someone’s bachelor party.

She should have found their puritanical nosiness funny. It was a measure of how nervous she was that she smiled apologetically and pointed toward the placard the hotel had propped on an easel near the door.

Malone/Trafalgar/Smithers Halloween Party. PRIVATE.

The women relaxed, finally smiling back. They nodded, then idiotically waited, like protective maiden aunts, for her to open the door and get safely inside.
Great.
Now there was no turning back.

Giving the ladies another unnecessary smile, Belle yanked open the heavy door and practically shoved herself inside.

Luckily, the room was packed, and no one noticed her lurching entrance. Under cover of the sound system, which was playing “The Monster Mash,” she took a deep breath, adjusted her wig one more time and scanned the room.

Back in her dorm, with her roommate, Pandora, laughing and egging her on, this had seemed like a great adventure. Spunky, creative, fun and brave.

Now Belle wasn’t at all sure she could pull it off.

She didn’t like to think of herself as a coward. When she was about six, she’d realized she had inherited the doormat gene from her mother, and she’d vowed to fight her fate. She was nineteen now, and in all those years she hadn’t once let herself give in to fear, not even fear of her coldhearted, razor-tongued father.

Tonight, though…Tonight was different.

For starters, she’d never crashed a party being held by a total stranger before. She definitely had never tarted herself up in a Cleopatra costume so skimpy it violated decency laws in forty-nine states.

And she had never, ever, ever done crazy stuff like this just so she could chase down and impress a boyfriend.

Speaking of which…where was Andy? She couldn’t see very clearly. She’d left her glasses behind on her unmade bed. “Cleopatra didn’t wear glasses,” Dorrie had said, the gin making the line sound hilarious…instead of just dumb. How could Belle wow and seduce Andy if she couldn’t even find him?

He hadn’t even told her what he’d be wearing tonight.
In fact, he hadn’t mentioned the party to her at all, until she discovered the invitation in his jacket pocket.

“Why should I have mentioned it? You wouldn’t ask for the night off, not just to have a little fun. That’s your problem, Belle. You don’t do fun.”

At the time, she’d been furious. How unfair, how illogical was that? she’d asked him. He didn’t know what she would have done. She
might
have asked for time off.

Besides, she didn’t notice Andy offering to pay her rent, or her tuition, so that she wouldn’t have to serve smoothies to rude college kids who tipped in linty piles of nickels and dimes. He didn’t even pay for his own. His daddy did, which meant he didn’t understand one single blasted thing about Belle’s reality. If she’d let her dad pay the bills, he would have attached so many strings she wouldn’t have been able to breathe and…

She’d stopped herself before the next word came out. She knew that if she got too “mouthy,” as her father always called it, Andy would use it as an excuse to escalate the fight, and they’d probably break up.

So she’d consulted with Pandora, who had suggested this escapade. Andy was losing interest? Andy thought Belle was a bore? Time to show him how wrong he was.

Pandora was a senior, and she had friends in the theater department. They’d raided the costume wardrobe, and two hours later Belle didn’t even recognize herself in the mirror.

A dramatic black wig hid her blond curls; kohl liner created exotic black almonds out of her ordinary blue
eyes; rubber inserts swelled the skimpy gold top more impressively than her God-given B-cups had any right to look. Not much actual cloth, but everything else shimmered and jingled.

A hip-hugging skirt so low it showed her birthmark, a light brown stain on her right hip, shaped like an inch-long map of Italy. Jeweled sandals, huge rhinestone chandelier earrings, a belt of tinkling gold coins, bracelets and bangles, and a silver snake wrapped around her upper arm.

Trashy? Reckless? Maybe. But definitely not a bore.

The room was huge, and happily chaotic. On the far side, people crowded up to a buffet table that stretched the length of the wall. Across from that, a bunch of kids had lined up for a costume contest. In the center of the room, a few dozen people twirled and laughed, waving their arms in a silly dance.

Belle forced herself to move along the perimeter, laying her hand over her belly to quiet the butterflies. The bare flesh tightened at the touch of her cold fingers. She decided to head for the buffet. Maybe, with a sandwich to absorb the gin she’d had with Pandora a couple of hours ago, she could calm down.

Before she reached the table, she bumped into a middle-aged astronaut carrying an overflowing cocktail in each hand.

After scanning her from head to toe, he extended one of the glasses. “Oh,” he said with a loopy grin. “How I wish I’d come as Julius Caesar.”

The glass was close enough that the alcohol fumes knifed up her nostrils. She coughed and shook her head,
but didn’t speak. A forty-year-old man offering a college freshman liquor? Obviously, in this getup, she no longer looked nineteen.

She pointed vaguely to her left, as if she had someone to meet, and made a hard turn in the other direction.

But within thirty seconds, a blond Indiana Jones had slipped up beside her. “Hel
lo
,” he murmured, putting his hand on her bare hip. “I do believe I have found the Holy Grail.”

Yuck
. She hoped he couldn’t feel the goose bumps under his fingers. He might think it was chemistry, when actually it was pure disgust. She would have liked to slap his hand away, but she couldn’t risk causing a scene. She forced a smile, shook her head again and abruptly peeled off to the right.

Suddenly this seemed like a serious mistake. Her annoyance resurfaced. If Andy was losing interest, then why was she trying so hard to hang on? Wasn’t this a little like what her mom always did? Remaking herself in an image more pleasing to the Testosterone God?

Belle didn’t really want a boyfriend who didn’t appreciate her until she put on a hooker suit, did she?

Did she?

Note to self: Sloe gin fizzes do not enhance decision-making skills.

Just a yard away, a tuxedoed James Bond, complete with slick hair and smarmy smile, was headed toward her, one dyed-black eyebrow raised rakishly. She could just imagine the “Pussy Galore” jokes this guy had up his sleeve.

Belle dodged again, then positioned herself safely
against the least-populated wall. The feathery fronds of a gigantic potted fern shielded her, which might give her time to pick Andy out of the hordes of space aliens, princesses, cowboys, carhops and cavemen.

Maybe that pirate…? No, he was too tall. The Benjamin Franklin? No. Too old.

Then, as if Fate decided to point a finger, one of the catering staff dropped a tray, and several people bent to help gather up the mess. In the space created by the fuss, she saw him.

He’d come as a cowboy, of course, ten-gallon hat and all. His grandfather owned a ranch in Nevada, and he never stopped bragging about it. She could have guessed as much, if she’d been thinking clearly.

But she couldn’t have guessed that he’d have his arm wrapped tightly around a fairy princess, a gorgeous woman with platinum-blond hair, gigantic, glittering opalescent wings and gravity-defying breasts bigger than the helium balloons that floated around them.

For a minute, Belle’s mind wouldn’t put the pieces together. He had said he was coming alone.

He bent down, winding his arm around the girl’s neck, and kissed her. The kiss went on so long Belle’s own lungs began to feel tight. She knew that kiss, that claustrophobic headlock.

Andy called it his “power kiss.” For the first time, seeing it from the outside, Belle recognized it for what it was. A power-
freak
kiss. The only thing that turned Andy on was control.

Finally he let the princess come up for air. Amazingly, she still looked dreamy-faced and adoring. Andy
whispered something to her, and the two of them began to walk toward the ballroom doors.

Then they were gone.

As the room whirled oddly around her, Belle tried to figure out exactly what she was feeling. Her knees were weak, and she was slightly light-headed. Mostly she was numb.

Maybe it was too soon to feel anything like pain, the way she might slip and cut herself with a kitchen knife, and see the blood before she felt the sting.

But she definitely already felt the anger. And a searing burn of embarrassment, too. She’d dressed up in this uncomfortable costume to impress that…that lying baboon?

She should go home. What was the point in staying now? But she wasn’t sure about her knees, which still felt a bit soupy. The earrings weighed a ton, and the wig was giving her a headache.

Shutting her eyes, she leaned her head back against the wall. The fake hair shifted a fraction of an inch—a weird sensation, as if her scalp were literally crawling.

“Are you okay?”

Her eyes flew open to find a masked Zorro bending over her, a beer in his hand.

God, had she stumbled into the Perverts Anonymous meeting?

“I’m
fine
,” she said tightly. “And no, you may not mark me with a
Z
.”

He looked at her a minute, his eyes dark and inscrutable behind that mask. He was nearly a foot taller than she was—six inches taller than Andy, at least. And unless they made falsies for men’s costumes, too, he had
an awesome body. Broad shoulders, tight hips and muscles rippling in all the right places.

He wouldn’t have to obsess about power, and half throttle petite females to make himself feel like a man. He would take control for granted.

He tilted his head curiously, though she couldn’t tell whether he hadn’t heard her or didn’t understand what she meant. She narrowed her eyes. Sexy body or no sexy body, she was sick to the gills of deflecting passes from all the wrong men at this party.

“Look, I said I—”

Beneath the mask, Zorro’s eyes crinkled at the corners. His mouth curved, revealing even white teeth, and he began to laugh.

It was, surprisingly, a charming sound. Low, rumbling, manly. Completely uninhibited and genuine. She wasn’t used to that, not in a man. Her father always chuckled with his lips shut, as if to prove he was still in control. Andy’s laughter—she had never realized this before—was always too loud and somehow false.

Zorro was obviously accustomed to being happy, and it hadn’t occurred to him to fake it, ration it or in any way tinker with the feeling.

On the other hand, she might be reading too much into a sexy baritone and a great pair of shoulders. He might just be a merry drunk. He might have been tossing back beer and vodka and anchovies with Mr. Astronaut all night. She continued to spear him with her gimlet gaze, just in case.

“Sorry,” he said, still chuckling. “I was just thinking how disappointed you’re going to be when you see my sword.”

“What?”

He touched the hilt. Filigreed silver sparkled at his narrow, ridiculously sexy waist. “It’s plastic, you see. All show. I couldn’t carve a
Z
into a pat of butter.”

She bit her lower lip, feeling like a fool for assuming his solicitude had been a come-on. Then she felt even dumber, realizing that she was going to have neon-red lipstick all over her teeth. Cleopatra the Blushing Virgin Vampire.
Charming.

“I’m sorry,” she said, running her tongue over her teeth as hard as she could, tasting the nasty wax. “I thought you were…well, it’s just that a couple of other guys have…”

He smiled. “I can imagine.”

She felt herself flushing. “Nothing creepy. Nothing out of line. Just…flirting. I…I wasn’t in the mood.”

He tilted his head again, and she could see by the whites of his eyes that he was checking her out, as the others had done, from the black wig to the red toenails. This time, oddly, she didn’t mind as much.

“Of course not.” His mobile mouth curved. “Still. If you didn’t want the men to notice that you’re smoking hot, I’ll bet that costume store had a nice little nun outfit you could have bought instead.”

A nice little nun. Oh, if only she’d done exactly that. In spite of herself, she had to laugh.

“Fair enough,” she admitted, fighting the urge to pull her hip-hugging skirt up a bit. “But you see—” she gazed out into the crowd again “—it wasn’t
guys
I wanted to impress. More like a guy. Singular.”

“Ah.” Did she imagine it, or did he sound disappointed? “Anyone I know?”

Oops.
She shouldn’t have opened the door to questions like that. She had no idea who had invited Andy—the Malones, the Trafalgars or the Smithers. And of course, she had no idea which family, if any, Zorro was connected to.

“I doubt it,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter. He’s not here anymore. I was going to…surprise him. But he’s gone.”

She realized that a wistful note had crept into her voice. It reminded her uncomfortably of her mom’s tone when her dad called to say don’t wait up, he would be working late. “When he left, he had someone with him. A panting, top-heavy blonde on a leash. So my costume is actually a moot point.”

“He did?” Zorro’s eyes lit up. He sighed with feeling, staring down at his beer bottle. “God, I love stupid men.”

BOOK: For the Love of Family
11.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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