Book 1 in the Summer Sisters series
Special Edition #2211
August 21, 2012

Releases August 1 on

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From the moment four-year-old Ryder Caldwell laid eyes on his parents’ housekeeper’s tiny baby girl, he was a goner, determined to protect the little girl forever. But as childhood melted into adolescence, so did those protective feelings, forcing Ryder to end their relationship before they made a mistake. But how could he have predicted that his rejection would send Melanie Duncan running into his brother's arms? Now, ten years later, Mel has come home-and she's not alone. She was always the woman Ryder couldn't forget-and now she's accompanied by the child he hadn't known existed. And suddenly the good doctor can see everything he's been searching his whole life to find...right in his own backyard....



Chapter One

Her nostrils twitching at the putrid mix of mildew, ancient grease and whatever it was that had died in her grandmother’s Nixon-era refrigerator, Melanie Duncan could only gawk in horrified amazement. Holy cannoli – Amelia Rinehart had apparently kept every glass jar and plastic container she’d ever touched.

Along with – shuddering, Mel thunked shut the grimy, mustard yellow cabinet door –decades’ worth of magazines, newspapers and junk mail stacked in teetering piles throughout the eight-freaking-bedroom house. And just think, she thought sourly, shoving up the nasty water faucet with her wrist and waiting for-ev-er for the hot water to meander up from the basement, it was all hers. Hers and April’s and Blythe’s, that is.

With that, her gaze also meandered, out the dirt-fogged window and beyond the weed-infested back yard sloping down to the inlet beyond, the slate blue water glittering in the late September sunshine…and she could almost see those three girls sunbathing on the pier, stretched out on Walmart-issue beach towels as Green Day blared from somebody’s old boombox. Blythe’s, most likely. 

The water suddenly went blistering hot, making Mel yelp. Cursing, she adjusted the handle, thinking maybe she was still in shock. Not so much about her grandmother’s passing – she had been nearly ninety, after all, even if Death probably had to hog-tie her and drag her away kicking and screaming. But, yeah, inheriting the Eastern Shore property, especially since her grandmother and she hadn’t spoken in nearly ten years? That was strange. Far more strange than that, however, was finding herself in the last place she’d ever expected to set foot again.

Or wanted to.

Anxiety prickling her chilled skin – the thermostat didn’t appear to be working – Mel scrubbed her hands with the dish soap still sitting on the back of the pock-marked sink and turned, only to grimace at the M. C. Escher-like towers of long-since-expired bottles of herbal supplements smothering the chipped Formica counters…the jungle of dead plants at the base of the patio doors leading to the disintegrating back porch…what appeared to be hundreds of paper bags, undoubtedly loaded with mouse droppings, wadded between the fridge and the cabinets. Disgusting, as her daughter would say. Thank God the washing machine was working – go, Maytag – because no way in hell was she letting her child sleep on any of the musty sheets she’d found all jumbled up in the linen closet.

Had her grandmother always been that much of a packrat? Or had the three of them turned blind eyes to the clutter during those long, lazy summers when the world as they all knew it simply didn’t exist?

Shaking her head, Mel tromped to the dining room and yelled for her daughter, who, being made of sterner stuff than Mel, had gasped in utter delight the moment they’d set foot inside, then immediately taken off to explore.

“Quinn! Where are you?” she bellowed again, fighting images of the child fending off a posse of rats, breathing a sigh of relief at Quinn’s faint, but strong, “Coming!” in reply.

She glowered at the behemoth of a buffet across the room, the blotchy mirror behind it nearly obliterated by more…stuff. Doodads and knickknacks and tchtochkes galore. And in every corner, packages of all shapes and sizes – some unopened, even – from every purveyor of useless crap on the planet.

So much for a quick in-and-out. What had clearly taken years to accumulate wasn’t going to simply go poof in a couple of days. And then what? What the hell were the three of them supposed to do with the place? Yes, St. Mary’s Cove was picturesque and all, but even divested of all the stuff , potential buyers would take one look and laugh their tushies off. And she sincerely doubted that either of her cousins had the funds, let along the wherewithal, to fix it up. She sure as hell didn’t, a thought that only shoved Mel back down into the Pit of Despair she’d been trying – with scant success – to climb out of for what felt like forever.

With a mighty sigh, she hiked through the House of Horrors and outside to her trusty little Honda to unload the back seat, the tangy, slightly fruity bay breeze catching her off guard. Oh, no. Not doing nostalgia, nope.

And just like that, there he was. In her head, of course, not in person, there was no reason for him to know she was even here – and God willing, that’s how this little episode would play out – but…damn.

She hadn’t allowed herself to think of him in years. Had almost convinced herself it didn’t matter anymore. He didn’t matter anymore, that what they’d shared was as firmly and irrevocably in the past as those long ago summers—

“Mom? Whatcha doing?”

Mel glanced up, smiling for the slightly frowning nine-year-old – her life, her love, her reason for living – standing on the porch, all turn-of-the-century charm fallen on hard times, and her heart turned over in her chest. Heaven knows she’d made a boatload of mistakes in her life – oh, let her count the ways – but the skinny fourth-grader with the wild red hair currently standing with her hands planted on her skinny, not-at-all-like-Mama’s, hips wasn’t one of them.

Although the circumstances of her conception? In a class by itself.

“Unpacking. And good news! You can come play pack mule.” Because there was no way she was leaving that half-finished cheesecake to rot back in Baltimore while they were here. Or the pumpkin soufflé. Or the…

Okay, she liked her own cooking. So sue her.

They carted the various Tupperwared goodies into the kitchen, at which point Quinn gasped, bug-eyed, then shook her head. “Looks like you and me have got some serious cleaning to do.”

“You might say,” Mel said as she cautiously opened the doors under the sink to find – booyah! – six half-empty containers of Comet and as many boxes of garbage bags, a bucketload of desiccated sponges and enough Lysol to disinfect a cruise ship. And, praise be, two unopened packages of rubber gloves. The good Lord will provide, she heard her mother say, and tears threatened. Not going there, either, Mel thought, standing and handing her daughter a pair of gloves, a sponge and one of the Comets.

“Start with the sink.” Gloves donned, Mel yanked out a garbage bag and faced the fridge. “This puppy is mine.”

“Got it.” Quinn dragged over a step-stool to better reach inside the sink, wriggled into her own gloves and got to it, determination oozing from every pore in her little body…as she started to sing, loudly and very badly, a song from Wicked.

What a little weirdo, Mel thought, chuckling. A little weirdo, she thought on a sharp intake of breath, she’d protect with everything she had in her.

Especially from people who wanted to pretend she didn’t exist.

* * *

Looking up from Jenny O’Hearn’s chart, Ryder Caldwell stared at his father’s white-coated back, the words barely registering.

“What did you say?”

David Caldwell slid his pen back into his top pocket, then directed a steady, but concerned, gaze at Ryder before removing the coat and snagging it onto a hook on the back of his office door. “That Amelia left the house to the girls.”

Not that this was any surprise, Ryder thought over the pinching inside his chest as he watched his dad shrug into the same tan corduroy sport coat he wore to work every day, rain or shine – much to Ryder’s mother’s annoyance – then yank down the cuffs of his blue Oxford shirt. Made perfect sense, in fact, Amelia Rinehart’s bequeathing the house to the three cousins who’d spent, what? A dozen summers there? At least?

What was a surprise, was his reaction to the news. That after all this time the prospect of seeing Mel again should provoke any kind of reaction at all. After all, stuff happened. People grew up, moved on—

“You okay?”

Ryder glanced up at his father. Although David’s lanky form stooped more than it used to, and silver riddled his thick, dark hair, it often startled Ryder that it was like seeing an age progression image of what Ryder would look like himself in thirty years. Unlike his younger brother Jeremy, who’d inherited their mother’s fair skin and red hair. Among other things.

“Of course, why wouldn’t I be?” he said, flipping closed Jenny’s file, then striding down the short hall to the empty waiting room to leave it on Evelyn’s desk to tend to the next morning. Outside, a light rain had begun to speckle the oversize windows of the small family practice clinic on Main Street his father had started nearly thirty years ago, where Ryder had joined him – again, much to his mother’s annoyance – after completing his residency five years before. The clinic, his practice, had been the only constants in a life clearly determined to knock him flat on his butt with irritating regularity. Good thing that butt was made of rubber, was all he had to say. “But how did you—”

“Golf. Phil,” his father said behind him, rattling his keys. “Far as he knows they’ll be here today or tomorrow. To decide what to do with the place.” He paused. “Just thought you should know.”

“Because of Mel?”

A slight smile curved his father’s lips. “That little girl worshipped the ground you walked on. Never saw a pair of kids as close as you two were.”

Slipping into a tan windbreaker nearly as old as his father’s jacket, Ryder turned to the older man, now standing by the front door. “That was years ago, Dad,” he said over the twist of guilt, an almost welcome change from the pain he still lugged around after nearly a year. “We haven’t even spoken since that summer.” Another twist. “After her father died—”

“There’s a child, Ry.”

Again, the words weren’t making sense. How – why – did his father know this? And what on earth did it have to do with Ryder? “So she has a kid—”

“She’s nine.”

And that would be the sound of pieces slamming into place. “And you think she’s mine? Excuse me, Dad, but that’s not possible—”

“I know she’s not yours, Ry,” his father said wearily. Bleakly. “She’s your brother’s.”

* * *

His head still spinning, Ryder sat across the street from the massive old quasi-Victorian, set well back on its equally massive, and woefully neglected, lot. He’d been there a while, parked in the dark, dead space between the street lamps and not giving a rat’s ass that the damp from the now full-out rain had seeped into his bones. He had no idea, of course, if the little white Honda with the Maryland plates was Mel’s or not, if the lights glowing from the kitchen window meant she was in there.

With her daughter.

You know, you tell yourself what’s past is past. That time inevitably fades reality. If not warps it into something else altogether. Then something, anything – a word, a thought, a scent – and it all comes rushing back.

His father hadn’t said much, muttering something about how his tail was going to be in a sling as it was. Meaning, Ryder surmised, that his mother had been behind whatever had gone down. No shocker there, given her obsessive protectiveness of his younger brother. Who, according to Ryder’s father, had known about the baby—

Holy hell. After an hour, the shock hadn’t even begun to wear off. He pushed out a short, soundless laugh – he’d finally gotten to the point, if barely, where he no longer felt as though he had a rusty pitchfork lodged in his chest, and now…this.

Even if he had no idea yet what “this” was. If anything.

Frankly, if the child had been his – if that had even been a possibility, of course – he doubted he could have been more stunned. Or furious. Hell, Ryder couldn’t decide which was eating him alive more – that Jeremy had knocked Mel up or that everybody had kept it a secret all these years. That Mel hadn’t told him—

You feel betrayed? Really?

The front door opened. Ryder slouched behind the wheel like some creepy stalker, even as he silently lowered his window to get a better look, rain be damned. So, yeah, the car was Mel’s – even over the deluge he could hear her still-infectious laughter before he saw her, and the memories flooded his thought like soldiers charging into battle. Somehow, he steeled himself against them as the kid emerged first, her tall, thin frame swallowed up in a lime green down vest, the feeble porch light glancing off a headful of blazing curls before she yanked her sweatshirt hood up over them. She tramped to the edge of the wide porch to glare over the railing. At the weather, he guessed.

Crap. She looked exactly like Jeremy.

Ryder’s heart thumped when Mel backed through the door, her translucent, bright pink plastic rain poncho making her look as though she’d been swallowed alive by a jellyfish. He couldn’t tell much, other than she’d traded in those godawful Birkenstocks for even more godawful Crocs. In a bilious pink to coordinate with the poncho, no less.

Ryder felt his mouth twitch: Fashion never had been her strong suit.

The door locked, Mel joined her daughter to give her a one-armed hug, lay her cheek atop her curls, and his lungs seized. Of course, between the downpour and the sketchy light from the streetlamp, he couldn’t really see her face, although there was no reason why she wouldn’t be as pretty as ever, her thick dark hair – still long, he saw – a breath-stealing contrast to her light, gray green eyes. Something he hadn’t dared tell her then, despite how badly he knew she’d needed to hear it. Her posture, however, as she held her little girl close, her obvious sigh as her gaze drifted over what must have seemed like a bad dream, positively screamed Just kill me now.

It occurred to him he didn’t know if she was in a relationship. Or even married. If she’d gone to college, or what she’d majored in if she had.

If she was happy, or heartbroken, or bored with her life—

No. Mel would never be bored.

He had no intention of ambushing her. Not yet, anyway. As it was, he was pressing an unfair advantage simply by being here, especially since he doubted she had any idea he knew she’d returned, let alone about Quinn. And he certainly wasn’t about to confront her – not the right word, but the only one he could think of at the moment – before the million and one thoughts staggering around inside his brain shook off their drunken stupor and started talking sense. Or before he shook loose the full story from his mother – the next item on his to-do list, in fact. But for reasons as yet undefined he’d simply wanted to…see her.

The poncho glimmered in the sketchy light as Mel said something to the girl. He couldn’t hear their exchange, but damned if Quinn’s dramatic gestures didn’t remind him exactly of her mother at that age, and it suddenly seemed incomprehensible, that he’d known absolutely nothing about the last ten years of her life when he’d been privy to pretty much all of it up to that point.

 Those huge, curious eyes had hooked Ryder from the moment he saw her when she was two days old, as though – or so it seemed to his five-year-old self – she was asking him to watch out for her. Never mind that her parents lived in the groundskeeper’s cottage and he in in the main house, the oldest son of her parents’ employers. He was hers, and she was his, and that was that, he now thought with a slight smile.

Images floated through, of her belly laugh when he’d play peek-a-boo with her, of helping her learn to walk, ride a tricycle, learn her alphabet. Then, later, how to throw a baseball, and cannonball into the swimming pool, and lob water balloons with deadly, and enviable, accuracy – activities his four-years-younger brother Jeremy, coddled and cosseted long after a full recovery from a severe bout of pneumonia as a toddler, found stupid and/or boring.  

Of course, as Ryder grew older Mel’s constantly trailing him like a duckling sometimes annoyed him no end, when he wanted to hang with his fifth-grade homies or build his model airplanes without some five-year-old girl yakking in his ear. A five-year-old girl with no compunction whatsoever about slugging him, hard, when he’d tell her to beat it, before stomping off, her long, twin ponytails flopping against her back.

Until he’d come to his senses – or his friends would go home – and he’d seek her out again, finding her in the kitchen “helping” her mother cook, or building castles out of Ryder’s cast-off Legos.

And she always greeted him with a bright grin, his rejection forgiven, forgotten, Ryder thought with a pang as, shrieking the whole way, Mel and the kid finally dashed down the steps to her car.

His window raised, he watched the Honda cautiously take off through the downpour, thinking  how he’d always been able to count on that grin, even after he was in high school and Mel barely up to her ankles in the first waves of adolescence, when their mothers began to cast leery glances in their direction. Although it was absurd, that they’d even think what they were thinking. Mel was his little sister, for God’s sake, a take-no-crap punk kid who knew everything she needed to know about how boys thought…from Ryder. The boundaries couldn’t have been brighter if they’d been marked in Kryptonite.

Until the summer after she turned sixteen.

He’d just finished pre-med. And oh, how grateful he’d been, after that semester from hell, for Mel’s easy, no-demands company, even if the sight of her in that floral two-piece swimsuit seriously threatened those boundaries. She’d always been more mature than most girls his own age. That summer, when her body caught up to her brain…yowsa. And, yes, not being totally clueless, it was evident she no longer looked at him the same way, either.

However. He would have lopped off an appendage – in particular the one giving him five fits those days – before violating her trust. Except it had been that very trust that sent her into his arms, the day after her father’s sudden death, for the comfort she couldn’t get from anyone else. Especially not her wrecked mother.

Even after all this time, a wave of hot shame washed over Ryder as he remembered how desperately he’d wanted to accept what she was offering. How horrified he’d been. And he’d panicked, pure and simple. Pushed her away, walked away…run away, back to school weeks before he needed to be there.

She’d meant more to him than anyone else in the world, and he’d bungled things, big-time. Stomped on her already broken heart like a mad elephant. Worse, he’d never apologized, never explained, never tried to fix what he’d broken, partly because, at twenty-one, he had no clue how to do that.

But mainly because…he’d wanted her. And what kind of perv did that make him?

Groaning, Ryder let his head fall back, his own still-bruised heart throbbing inside his chest. This was the last thing he needed, to have that that particularly egregious period of his life return to chomp his behind when his heart was still so sore. But chomp, it had.

He’d never expected to see Mel again, never imagined he’d have the opportunity to tell his side of the story. Not that there was any guarantee she’d even want to hear it after all this time. Nor would her blame her. 

However – he finally started the car, eased down the road that led to his parents’ house, on the other side of the cove – he did want to hear Mel’s side. Which would be the side, he thought as bile rose in his throat, that explained how she’d come to have his brother’s baby.

* * *

“You told him?” Knowing, and not caring, that she probably looked as though she’d been goosed, Lorraine Caldwell gaped at her husband as a brutal cocktail of emotions threatened to knock her right on her fanny. “Are you out of your mind?”

Settled into his favorite wing-chair in the wood-paneled den, the dogs dozing at his feet, David swirled his two fingers of Scotch in his glass and shrugged. Even after nearly thirty-five years of marriage, Lorraine still hadn’t decided if his unflappability soothed her or unnerved her. Until she remembered they probably wouldn’t still be married otherwise, considering…things. Things not given a voice for more than three decades, but which still occasionally shimmered between them like a ghost that refused to move on. Now, underneath blue eyes that had knocked her off her feet as a girl, a slight smirk told her that he had the upper hand. And wasn’t about to let it go.

“And if you remember I was the one who said you were out of your mind, thinking you could keep this a secret.”

David hadn’t exactly been on board with the arrangement, Lorraine thought with a mix of aggravation and – dare she admit it? – admiration. Now. Then, however…

“She wasn’t supposed to come back! Especially with…” She lowered her voice, despite their being alone. Even though they hadn’t had full time help in years, old habits die  hard. “The child. That was the agreement.”

“Clearly you didn’t consider all eventualities. Believe it or not, Lorraine, you can’t control the entire world.”

Lorraine’s eyes burned. The entire world? There was a laugh. How about even her own tiny corner of it? “For heaven’s sake, David – maybe they wouldn’t even have run into each other. Why on earth did you jump the gun?”

“Because,” he said, standing, “it didn’t feel right to leave it to chance. Catching Ryder off guard if they didcross paths. Besides, aren’t you even curious about her?”

Talking about being caught off guard. Lorraine sucked in a breath: she’d never, not once, indulged herself in pointless “what ifs?” After all, she’d made the best decision, the only decision, she could have made at the time. A decision circumstances had forced her to make. To change the rules now—

“What about Jeremy?” she said, grasping at rapidly disintegrating straws. “And Caroline. They’ve only been married six months—” At her husband’s quelling look, Lorraine blew out a sigh. “What if Ryder confronts him? Did you think of that?”

“I imagine he will,” David said with a shrug. “Hell, I was all for making the boy own up to his idiocy at the time—”

“Then why didn’t you?” Ryder said quietly from the doorway, making Lorraine jump.

David waved his nearly empty glass in her direction. “Ask your mother.”

Wordlessly, Ryder turned his gaze on her, his hands shoved into the pockets of that awful old windbreaker he’d had since college. Whereas her younger son had always been given to flying off the handle – her fault, she supposed – Ryder had always been the even-tempered one, even as a toddler. Just like his father. That had unnerved her, too, his seeming imperviousness to anything that would try to unseat him. Now, however, Lorraine could tell by the glint in his dark brown eyes, the hard set to his beard-hazed jaw – another “style” also picked up in college – that his customary calm masked an anger so intense she almost couldn’t look at him.

Especially since that angry gaze relentlessly poked at the guilt she’d done her best to ignore for the past ten years.

Secrets, she thought on an inward wince. You would think she’d have learned her lesson the first time, wouldn’t you?

Apparently not.

* * *

Ryder watched his mother, still attractive in an old-money, take-me-as-you-find-me way, sink into the sofa’s down-filled cushions, sighing when one of the dogs heaved herself to her feet and plodded over to lay her head in his mother’s lap. A pair of silver clips held her fading red curls back from her sharply-boned face; in her rust-colored cardigan, jeans and flats, she gave off a certain Kate Hepburn vibe most people found intimidating.  And, to a certain extent, fascinating.

Most people. Not Ryder.

“Well?” he prompted.

She distractedly traced the design of the Waterford lamp beside her before folding her hands on her lap. “The thing between Jeremy and Mel…we had no idea. None. Until Maureen marched Mel in here – into this very room, in fact – that fall and announced that Mel was pregnant.” His mother shot a brief glance in his direction. “Frankly we assumed the baby was yours.” Her mouth twisted. “Until we did the math.”

Too angry to speak, Ryder crossed his arms high on his chest. “And when you realized it wasn’t?”

“Jeremy was barely eighteen,” his mother said, her gaze fixed on the Golden Retriever’s smooth head as she stroked it. “He’d just started at Columbia…” She pushed out a truncated sigh. “It was perfectly obvious it was all a mistake. That it meant nothing. To him, especially, but even Mel admitted…”

When Lorraine looked away, Ryder prodded, “Mel admitted what?”

“That she didn’t love Jeremy. Oh, for heaven’s sake, Ryder – don’t look at me like that. It was a silly summer fling, nothing more. A silly summer fling with dire consequences,” his mother finished on a grimace. “But then, Jeremy could hardly be blamed, could he? Not with the way M-Mel kept flaunting herself in those short shorts and tight tops—”

As in, cut-offs and T-shirts. Same as every other high school girl wore.

“And that bathing suit—”

“So, what? She’s automatically the guilty party because she grew breasts?”

Twin dots of pink bloomed on his mother’s cheeks. “Of course not. But she didn’t have to be so, so blatant about them. She could have dressed less…enticingly. I mean, you know your brother—”

Behind them, his father huffed out a breath. “Lorraine, for pity’s sake.”

“Well, it’s true. She played right into his hand. ”

“Literally,” Ryder muttered, his own fisting inside his pockets. “You know, being neither blind nor gay, I was pretty aware of Mel’s…assets, too. Assets she didn’t flaunt any more than any other girl her age. Less, in fact, than most. That bathing suit – sure, it showed off her curves, but we’re not talking a string bikini, for heaven’s sake.” Ryder glowered at his mother. “Yeah, I know Jeremy. But I would’ve thought…”

His mother stood. “You can’t lay this whole thing at his feet, Ryder. Even though I know you’d love to do that. I never did understand why the two of you never got along, which is one reason we decided it was better to keep this from you. Because I knew how much it would hurt you, that Mel…” At Ryder’s glare, Lorraine pressed her lips together, shaking her head.

“However, I refused to let one mistake derail Jeremy’s plans. Not after he’d had to work so hard to get into Columbia. So we struck a deal – one Maureen agreed to, by the way – that in exchange for our financial support they’d leave St. Mary’s for good and we’d never speak of any of this again.”

As livid as he was, Ryder felt his eyes narrow. Something was off. Not so much what his mother was saying but how she was saying it. But right now he just wanted the facts.

“So it never occurred to you to make Jeremy own up to his part in this?”

“At eighteen? What on earth was he supposed to do?”

“And Mel was sixteen. Something tells me she definitely got the short end of the stick—”

“I tried to make her see reason!” his mother said, and he caught the flash of desperation in her eyes. “To explore her…options, but she was having none of it. She insisted on having, and keeping, the baby, although for the life of me I never understood why. That was her choice, Ryder. Our choice—”

“Was to let my brother off the hook by sweeping the whole thing under the rug?”

“There’s a trust fund for the child. And we sent enough money through the years so they were never in any danger of starving. We honored our obligations, believe me. In the way we best saw fit. Your sister-in-law has no idea, by the way. And we’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell her. It could ruin their marriage. And I’m sure you wouldn’t want that on your conscience.”

Ryder smirked: although the news had gobsmacked him, nothing coming out of his mother’s mouth now surprised him in the least. To say Lorraine Caldwell was a control freak didn’t even begin to cover it. As far back as Ryder could remember his mother had ruled the household – in her childhood home, the estate having belonged to her surgeon father, her DC socialite-mother, long before she’d married the gentle GP who’d stolen her heart, as lore would have it, that summer when she was barely nineteen. As far as Ryder could tell she’d been Daddy’s spoiled little princess who’d seen no reason to change her modus operandi – as in, always getting her way – when she grew up. That she still seemed to have his father, as she’d had her own, so tightly wound around her little finger was a mystery he doubted he’d ever solve.

Except Ryder now looked to his father, seeing for the first time in David’s chagrinned, embarrassed expression the older man’s constant acquiescence to his mother’s whims for what it was – weakness, pure and simple. For God’s sake, grow a pair! he wanted to shout, even as his heart cracked a little more, that the man he’d so wanted to believe in, look up to, apparently didn’t really exist. For his dedication to his work, his patients, Ryder would always admire him. But respect him as a man? As someone he could count on to do the right thing?

Not so much.

Disheartened, he thought back to that silent promise he’d made to that chubby, bald, two-day-old baby, to look out for her. Protect her. Only he’d no idea at the time it would be his own family he’d have to protect her from. Or at the very least, try to undo ten years’ worth of damage.

“No,” he said to his mother. “I swear I won’t breathe a word to Caroline. That’s not my place, it’s Jeremy’s. Whose conscience, frankly, could use a good swift kick in the ass. But whatever. However, now that I know I have a niece, you better believe she’s going to know at least one member of this family gives a damn about her.”

“And what if Mel isn’t on board with that idea?”

He looked from one to the other. “That’s between Mel and me. Because you two officially have nothing more to say about it.”

Copyright 2012 Karen Templeton-Berger; cover art copyright 2012 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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