New York Times and USA Today Bestseller
Amazon.com Best Books of 2007
Keegan McKettrick has learned the hard way that women can’t be trusted. The only female in his life these days is the young daughter he sees all too rarely, and his sole passion is for his job overseeing his family’s corporation. Until beautiful but mysterious Molly Shields comes to Indian Rock on a mission—and keeping a suspicious eye on her becomes Keegan’s full-time hobby….
Molly doesn’t know why she’s attracted to a man who’s determined to dig up dirt on her, even if he is gorgeous. But cynical Keegan might be the one person who can truly understand her shadowy past-and if the two can risk opening their hearts, they just might forge a brighter future.
Molly Shields forced herself to pause on the sidewalk in front of the huge brick house, draw a deep breath and let it out slowly. If she hadn’t, she would have vaulted over the gate and covered the flagstone walk at a dead run.
Lucas was somewhere inside that enormous place.
But so was Psyche. And Psyche Ryan, at least in the eyes of the world, was legally Lucas’s mother.
Everything within Molly rebelled against that single fact.
Purposefully Molly adjusted her perspective, along with the canvas backpack she’d carried from the gas station at the far end of Indian Rock, Arizona, after getting off the afternoon bus from Phoenix. Lucas wasn’t her child; he was Psyche’s.
The little boy was eighteen months old now-eighteen months, two weeks and five days. He’d been a newborn, pink and squalling, when she’d last seen him, held him in her arms-all too briefly-before giving him up. Psyche had sent a few snapshots in the interim-Lucas was solid, handsome and blond, with bright green eyes. Molly’s own coloring, though her hair had darkened over time, but despite that, he resembled his late father more than her.
Now, in a very few minutes, maybe even moments, Molly would see the baby she still thought of as her own, at least in weak moments.
Perhaps she’d be allowed to hold Lucas. She ached to do that. To breathe in the scent of his hair and skin…
Careful, her practical side admonished.
It was miracle enough that Psyche, a virtual stranger and, it was to be remembered, a betrayed wife, had summoned Molly to this little town, with its shady streets, given all that had happened. She mustn’t move too fast, or make a wrong move-miracles were rare and fragile things, to be handled with infinite care.
Molly worked the latch on the shiny black iron gate. The metal felt hot and smooth to the touch. A discreet little sign, fastened to the ornate fence, proclaimed the place a registered historic site.
Psyche had explained, in one of her e-mails, that the house on the corner of Maple and Red River Drive, her childhood home, had stood empty for nearly a decade. But today the vast lawn looked manicured, lilacs and roses bloomed in freshly mulched beds and the many mullioned windows shone. The white wooden trim looked freshly painted, and the brick, though timeworn, was still damp in places from a recent power wash.
Molly forced herself to walk slowly up the walk, toward the front porch, part of which was screened in. No doubt there were patio chairs there, a little table and maybe even a wooden swing.
Molly pictured herself sitting in that swing, rocking Lucas to sleep on a warm summer evening, and her heart beat a little faster.
Psyche’s child, she repeated to herself in a silent mantra. Psyche’s child.
She had no idea why Psyche had summoned her, or how long she’d be staying. The woman had graciously offered first-class airfare from LAX, with a car and driver to meet her in Phoenix, but Molly, perhaps as a form of penance, had chosen to take the bus instead.
She’d have been wiser not to come at all, of course, but she hadn’t been able to resist the chance to see Lucas.
The heavy front door swung open just as Molly reached the bottom step, jolting her out of her travel-weary speculations, and a middle-aged black woman appeared, thin and tall, clad in a crisp white uniform and sensible, crepe-soled shoes.
“You her?” she asked bluntly.
Molly was “her,” all right. Lucas’s birth mother, the woman who had slept with Psyche’s husband. It didn’t matter that Molly truly hadn’t known he was married until it was too late. That was always the excuse, wasn’t it? She was intelligent, with a college education, her own business. Thayer had been a facile liar, but she should have seen the signs.
There were always signs.
Molly swallowed. Nodded in glum acknowledgment.
“Well, get yourself on in here,” the woman said, fanning herself with one hand. “I can’t stand on this porch all day with the door hanging open, you know. Air-conditioning costs money.”
Molly hid a rueful smile. Psyche had mentioned her housekeeper several times over the past several weeks-she was cantankerous, but kind, too. “You must be Florence,” Molly said mildly, swallowing an urge to explain that she wasn’t a home wrecker.
Florence frowned, spared an unfriendly nod. “Is that backpack all the luggage you brought?”
Molly shook her head. “I have some more stuff at the gas station,” she replied. “It was too heavy to carry.” Some of her private regrets were like that, too, but she slogged on, mostly because she didn’t know what else to do.
Florence, practically bristling with disapproval, gave a sniff and adjusted her glasses. It was no great wonder that she hadn’t put out a welcome mat, figurative or otherwise, given the things Psyche must have told her. Most of which, unfortunately, were probably true.
After issuing a harrumph, Florence stepped aside to let Molly pass. “We’ll take the station wagon down there later, and fetch it all,” Florence said. “Right now, Miss Psyche’s upstairs resting, but I’ve got to keep an eye on her just the same.” Behind her thick glasses Florence’s chocolate-brown eyes glazed over for a moment, and she gave a sad huff of a sigh. “My poor baby,” she added, addressing the shrubbery more than Molly. “It practically wore her out, getting this house opened and moving us in. If it was up to me, we’d have stayed right in Flagstaff, where we belonged, but there’s no reasoning with that girl once she takes a notion.”
Molly longed to ask about Lucas, but she had to tread carefully, especially around this longtime family retainer. Florence Washington had been Psyche’s nanny until Psyche was old enough to go to school, then the family maid. When Psyche married Thayer Ryan, Mrs. Washington had stayed on to run the new household.
Molly felt a sick little flutter, way down in the pit of her stomach.
Thayer was dead-he’d suffered a massive coronary a year before, at the age of thirty-seven-and while Molly wouldn’t have wished him into an early grave, even after he’d all but ruined her life, she certainly hadn’t mourned him, either.
She hadn’t gone to the funeral.
She hadn’t sent flowers, or even a card.
After all, how would she have signed it? “With sympathy, your late husband’s mistress?”
Florence trudged off through an entryway with a grandfather clock and a curving staircase, and then down a long corridor, massive, drape-darkened rooms lining the passage on either side. Molly followed circumspectly, and they finally emerged into a sunlit kitchen with floor-to-ceiling windows forming the back wall and overlooking another enclosed porch. A flower-bright, sprawling yard lay beyond.
Molly finally shrugged out of her backpack and set it down on one of the chairs at the huge antique table in the center of the room.
“You might as well sit,” Florence said.
Might as well, Molly thought. She was tired-she’d ridden more than one bus since leaving L.A. two days before-but her first inclination was still to ransack that mansion room by room, flinging open doors until she found Lucas.
She drew back one of the heavy oak chairs and sagged into it.
“Coffee?” Florence asked. “Tea?”
“Water would be good,” Molly said.
“Fizzy stuff or regular?”
Florence brought her a glass of ice and a bottle. While Molly poured, Florence took up an obstinate pose over by the sink, leaning against the counter with her arms folded.
“What are you doing here?” Florence demanded, evidently having withheld the question as long as she could.
Molly, about to take a sip of water, set her glass down again. “I don’t know,” she answered truthfully. Psyche had contacted her by phone a week before and issued an urgent summons, with very little accompanying explanation.
“We have to talk about this in person,” she’d said.
“Seems to me you’ve done enough damage,” Florence told her, “without coming here. Especially now.”
Molly swallowed. She was thirty years old, and she ran one of the biggest literary agencies in L.A., dealt with egotistical, high-powered authors, editors and movie people practically every day. Now, sitting in Psyche Ryan’s kitchen, clad in the jeans, T-shirt and sneakers she’d been wearing for forty-eight hours straight, she felt diminished, as though she’d regressed to her college days, when she hadn’t had the proverbial two nickels to rub together.
“Don’t give her a hard time, Florence,” a gentle voice interceded softly from somewhere behind Molly’s chair. “I asked her to come, and Molly was kind enough to agree.”
Both Molly and Florence turned. Molly rising so quickly that she nearly knocked over her chair.
Psyche stood framed in a doorway, a painfully thin woman clad in a peach silk robe and matching slippers. Two aspects of her appearance leaped out at Molly-one, Psyche was beautiful and, two, she was obviously bald beneath the little crocheted cap she wore.
“Will you look in on Lucas, please?” Psyche said to Florence. “He was still asleep a few minutes ago, but he’s not used to the house yet, and I’d rather he didn’t wake up alone.”
Florence hesitated, gave a terse nod, glowered once at Molly and left the kitchen.
“Sit down,” Psyche told Molly, gliding gracefully toward her.
Molly, who was used to giving orders, not taking them, immediately complied.
Psyche drew back the chair next to Molly’s and sat down with a little sigh and a gingerly wince. “Thank you for coming,” she said, offering a hand. “I’m Psyche Ryan.”
Molly shook the hand, found it weightless as a wad of tracing paper. “Molly Shields,” she replied. Her gaze drifted to Psyche’s cap, back to the pair of enormous violet eyes beneath it.
Psyche smiled slightly. “Yes,” she said. “I have cancer.”
A chasm opened in the bottom of Molly’s heart. “I’m sorry,” she said. About so much more than the cancer. “Is it… ?”
“Terminal,” Psyche confirmed with a nod.
Tears of sympathy stung behind Molly’s eyes, but she didn’t allow herself to shed them. She didn’t know Psyche well enough for that.
Inevitably her mind fastened on Lucas.
Dear God, if Psyche was dying, what would happen to him? Having lost her own mother when she was fifteen, Molly knew the emptiness and constant undercurrent of fruitless searching that could result.
Psyche seemed to be tracking Molly’s unspoken thoughts-at least, some of them. She smiled again, reached across the tabletop to squeeze Molly’s hand. “As you know,” she said, “my husband is dead. Neither of us have any family. Since you’re Lucas’s biological mother, I hope. . .”
Molly’s heart leaped over the logical next conclusion, but she reined it in, back over the jump, afraid to risk the shattering disappointment that would follow if she was wrong.
“I’ve hoped you’ll care for him after I’m gone,” Psyche said. “Be his mother, not just on some paper in some file-but for real.”
Molly opened her mouth, closed it again, too shaken to trust her voice.
Psyche drew back a little, huddling in her exquisite peach robe, studying Molly with a worried expression.
“Maybe I presumed too much, sending for you the way I did,” she said, very softly. “If you’d wanted to raise Lucas, you wouldn’t have given him up.”
Desperation, sorrow and hope swelled within Molly, a tangle of emotions she’d probably never be able to separate. “Of course I want him,” she blurted, lest Psyche reconsider and withdraw the offer.
Psyche looked relieved-and exhausted. “There are a few strings attached,” she warned quietly.
Molly’s heart scrambled up into the back of her throat. She wailed, still terrified of tipping the balance the wrong way.
“Lucas must be raised in or around Indian Rock,” Psyche said. “Preferably in this house. I grew up here, and I want my son to do the same.”
Molly blinked. She owned a thriving literary agency in L.A., along with a house in Pacific Palisades. She had friends, an aging father, a life. Could she give all that up to live in a small, remote town in northern Arizona?
“Lucas will inherit a considerable estate,” Psyche went on. She took in Molly’s clothes and the worn backpack on the floor next to her chair. “I have no idea what your financial situation is, but I’m prepared to provide generously for you, until Lucas is of age, of course. You could turn the house into a bed-and-breakfast, if you wanted.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Molly said. “For you to give me money, I mean.” It was strange how quickly a life-changing decision could be made, if the stakes were high enough. Several of her clients, if not all, would balk when she told them she’d be operating out of Indian Rock from now on. Some would want out of their contracts, but it didn’t matter. Her bank accounts bulged, despite her lifestyle, and as agent of record she would collect commissions in perpetuity on the many works she’d already sold.
“Good,” Psyche said. She sniffled, took a tissue from the pocket of her robe and dabbed at her eyes.
For a few moments the two women sat in silence.
“Why did you give Lucas up?” Psyche asked. “Didn’t you want him?”
Didn’t you want him? The words blew through the bleak, weathered canyons of Molly’s soul like a harsh and bitter wind. She could have kept Lucas-she had the resources and certainly the desire-but she supposed that, like taking the bus from L.A., surrendering her son had been a way of punishing herself. “I thought he’d be better off with two parents,” she finally replied. It wasn’t the whole answer, but at the moment it was all she had to offer.
“I would have divorced Thayer,” Psyche said, “if it hadn’t been for Lucas.”
“I didn’t know-” Molly began, but she strangled on the rest of the sentence, couldn’t get it out.
“That Thayer was married?” Psyche prompted, not unkindly.
“I believe you,” Psyche said, surprising her. “Were you in love with my husband, Molly Shields?”
“I thought I was,” Molly replied. She’d met Thayer at a party in L.A., and immediately been swept away by his good looks, his charm and that sharp, albeit devious, mind of his. The pregnancy had been an accident, but she’d been happy about it, overjoyed, in fact-until she’d told Thayer.
After all this time, the memory of that day was still so painful that Molly turned away from it, pushed it to a back corner of her brain.
“My lawyer has already drafted the papers,” Psyche said, trying to rise from her chair, finding she was too weak and sinking into it again. “You may want to have them reviewed by counsel of your own before they’re finalized.”
Molly merely nodded, still absorbing the implications of Psyche’s words. Instinctively she got to her feet, helped Psyche to stand.
Almost as though she had radar, Florence reappeared, elbowed Molly aside and wrapped one strong arm around Psyche’s waist to support her. “You’d better lie down again,” the older woman said. “I’lI just get you upstairs.”
“Molly,” Psyche put in quickly, almost breathlessly, as though she were afraid of being swept away before her son’s fate was settled, “you come, too. It’s time you got to know Lucas. Florence, you’ll show Molly to her room, won’t you? Help her get settled?”
Florence passed Molly a poisonous glance. “Whatever you want, Miss Psyche,” she said, “that’s what I’ll do.”
Molly trailed after the two women, down a hallway, into an elevator with an old-fashioned grate door. The little box lurched, like Molly’s heart, as it sprang upward, shuddered its way past the second floor to the third.
Psyche slept in a suite of rooms boasting a marble fireplace, antique furniture, probably French, and elegantly faded rugs. A bank of windows overlooked the street on one side and the backyard on the other, and stacks of books teetered everywhere.
Distracted, yearning to see Lucas, Molly nonetheless spotted the names of several of her authors on the spines of those books.
“Through that doorway,” Psyche said, pointing, as Florence steered her toward the bed.
Once again Molly called upon every bit of self-restraint she possessed to keep from running in that direction. Running to Lucas, her son, her baby.
The nursery, a sizable room in its own right, adjoined Psyche’s. There was a rocking chair over by the windows, shelves jammed with storybooks, an overflowing toy box.
Molly took all that in peripherally, focused on the crib and the chubby toddler standing up in it, gripping the rails and eyeing her with charitable trepidation.
He seemed golden, a fairy child bathed in afternoon sunlight, his light hair gleaming and gossamer.
Molly, who wanted to race across the room and crush him to her, did neither. She stood still, just inside the doorway, letting the boy take her measure with solemn eyes.
“Hi,” she said, smiling moistly. “I’m Molly.”
And I’m your mother.
# # #
Keegan McKettrick stood impatiently beside his black Jaguar, waiting for the tank to fill and appraising the pile of designer luggage resting between the newspaper box and the display of propane tanks near the entrance to the town’s only gas station/convenience store. Even from a glance, he could tell the bags weren’t knockoffs, and whoever owned them had most likely come in on the four o’clock bus from Phoenix. He pondered the mystery while his car guzzled liquid money.
He was replacing the hose when a familiar station wagon bounced off the highway and rolled by, with Florence Washington at the wheel.
Keegan wanted to duck into the Jag and drive off, pretend he hadn’t seen the other car, but that would have gone against his personal code, so he didn’t. He’d known Psyche Ryan, née Lindsay, was back in town, that she’d come home, with her adopted son, to die.
He’d geared himself up to go by and see her several times since her return to Indian Rock, but he’d been reluctant to call or knock on the door, in case he disturbed her. If she was as sick as he’d heard she was, she was practically bedridden.
The station wagon rolled to a stop over by the propane tanks and the Louis Vuitton bags.
As Keegan squared his shoulders, he saw Florence turn in his direction, gazing balefully through the window.
He reminded himself that he was a McKettrick, born and bred, and chose to advance instead of retreat, assembling a smile as he did so.
Meanwhile, the door on the passenger side sprang open, and a slight woman with shoulder-length honey-colored hair got out.
Keegan glanced at her, looked away, registered who she was and looked back. He felt the smile evaporate from his lips, and forgot all about his plan to ask Florence if Psyche was up to receiving visitors.
His jaw clamped as he rounded the back of the wagon to confront Thayer Ryan’s mistress.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he growled. He couldn’t recall her name, but he remembered running into her at a swanky restaurant up in Flag one night. She’d been sitting with Ryan, that scumball, at a secluded table, clad in a slinky black cocktail dress and dripping diamonds-gifts, no doubt, from her married lover, and almost certainly charged to Psyche, since Ryan had never had a pot to piss in.
The woman flinched, startled. A pink flush glowed on her cheekbones, and her green eyes flickered with affronted guilt. Still, her gaze was steady, and more defiant than ashamed.
“Keegan McKettrick,” she said. Then she tried to go around him.
He blocked her way. “You have a good memory for names,” he told her. “Yours slips my mind.”
Florence, meanwhile, opened the back of the station wagon, presumably to stow the bags. “I’m not doing this all by myself,” she said.
Keegan remembered his manners-at least partially-and waved Florence back from the luggage. “There’s another bus tonight,” he told the woman whose face and body he recalled so well.
“Molly Shields,” she said, and raised her chin a notch to let him know she wasn’t intimidated. “And I’m not going anywhere. Kindly get out of my way, Mr. McKettrick.”
Keegan leaned in a little. Ms. Shields was a head shorter than he was, and he must have outweighed her by fifty pounds, but she didn’t shrink back, and he had to accord her a certain grudging respect for that. “Psyche’s sick,” he said in a grinding undertone. “Just about the last thing she needs is a visit from her dead husband’s girlfriend.”
The flush deepened, but the spring-green eyes flashed with swift defiance. “Step aside,” she said.
Keegan was still getting over the brass-balls audacity of her attitude when Florence interceded, poking at him with a finger.
“Keegan McKettrick,” the old woman said, “either make yourself useful and load up those bags, or be on your way. And if you can take time out of your busy schedule, you might stop by the house one of these days soon and say hello to Psyche. She’d like to see you.”
Keegan deliberately softened his expression. “How is she?” he asked.
Molly Shields took the opportunity to slip around him, grab one of the suitcases.
“She’s bad sick,” Florence answered, and tears glistened in her eyes. “She invited Molly here, and I’m not any happier about it than you are, but she must have a good reason, and I’d appreciate some cooperation on your part.”
Keegan was both confounded and chagrined. He nodded to Florence, lifted two of the five suitcases by their fancy handles and hurled them unceremoniously into the back of the station wagon, doing his best to ignore Molly Shields, who sidestepped him.
“You tell Psyche,” he said to Florence, “that I’ll be by as soon as she feels up to company.”
“She usually holds up pretty well until around two in the afternoon,” Florence replied. “You come over tomorrow, around noon, and I’ll set out a nice lunch for the two of you, on the sunporch.”
Keegan didn’t miss the phrase “for the two of you” and neither, he saw from the corner of his eye, did Molly, who was wrestling with the largest of the bags.
“That sounds fine,” he said, and jerked the handle from Molly’s grasp to throw the suitcase in with the others.
She glared at him.
He went right on ignoring her.
“I’d best pick up some bread and milk while we’re here,” Florence said, addressing Molly this time. With that, she disappeared into the convenience store.
“Does Psyche know you were boinking her husband?” Keegan asked in a furious whisper the moment he and Molly were alone.
“Does she know?” Keegan repeated fiercely.
She bit her lower lip. “Yes,” she said very quietly, when he’d just about given up on getting an answer.
“If you’re trying to pull some kind of scam-”
Molly’s shoulders had been stooped a moment before. Now she rallied and looked as though she might be about to slap him. “You heard Mrs. Washington,” she said. “Psyche asked me to come.”
“Not without a lot of setting up on your part, I’ll bet,” Keegan retorted. “What the hell are you up to?”
“I’m not ‘up to’ anything,” Molly answered after an obvious struggle to retain her composure, such as it was. “I’m here because Psyche…needs my help.”
“Psyche,” Keegan rasped, leaning in again until his nose was almost touching Molly’s, “needs her friends. She needs to be home, in the house where she grew up. What she does not need, Ms. Shields, is you. Whatever you’re trying to pull, you’d better rethink it. Psyche’s too weak to fight back, but l assure you, I’m not!”
“Is that a threat?” Molly countered, narrowing her marvelous eyes.
“Yes,” Keegan retorted, “and not an idle one.”
Florence returned with the bread and milk, went around to the other side of the car and put the groceries in the backseat. “If you two are through arguing,” she said, “I’d like to get back to Psyche.”
Molly gave him one last viperous look and got in on the passenger side.
Keegan spoke to Florence over the roof of the ancient station wagon. “I’ll be there at noon tomorrow,” he said. “Should I bring anything?”
He’d be bringing plenty, counting the questions he wanted to ask Psyche.
At last Florence smiled. “Just yourself,” she answered. “My girl will be mighty glad to see that handsome mug of yours.”
Keegan might have grinned if he hadn’t been mad enough to bite the top off one of the propane tanks and spit it to the other side of the road. “See you then,” he said.
He stood watching as Florence fired up the wagon, popped it into gear and zoomed out onto the street.
“I’ll be goddamned,” he muttered.
Five minutes later, well down the road back to The Triple M ranch, where members of The McKettrick clan had lived for a century and a half, he punched a digit on his cell phone.
He got his cousin Rance’s voice mail and cursed while he listened to the spiel. He’d undergone a transformation recently, Rance had, since he’d taken up with Emma Wells, who ran the local bookstore. Given up his high-powered job at McKettrickCo, the family conglomeration, and started ranching in earnest.
The beep sounded. “That bitch Thayer Ryan was screwing around with is in town,” he snapped, without preamble, “and guess where she’s staying? Psyche’s place.”
With that, he thumbed End and put a call through to Jesse, his other cousin. Jesse, who had a type-Z personality, was even harder to reach than Rance, since he refused to carry a cell phone. This time, Keegan didn’t even get voice mail.
He was about to backtrack to town, figuring he’d find Jesse in the poker room behind Lucky’s Bar and Grill, fleecing unsuspecting Texas hold ‘em devotees of their hard-earned money, when he remembered that Jesse and his new bride, Cheyenne, were still away on their honeymoon.
A lonely feeling swept over Keegan, one he was glad no one was around to see. Jesse was in love with Cheyenne, Rance with Emma.
And he was alone.
His own marriage hadn’t worked out, and his daughter, Devon, living in Flagstaff with her mother, visited only occasionally. Going back to the big house on the ranch was the last thing he wanted to do, but he couldn’t face returning to the office, either.
A lot of the family members were agitating to take McKettrickCo public, and fight though he did, Keegan was outnumbered. He could already feel the company, the only thing that kept him sane, slipping away.
What would he do when it was gone?
Jesse, never involved beyond cashing his dividend checks, didn’t give a damn. Rance, once willing to work eighteen-hour days right alongside Keegan, now preferred to spend his time with his kids, Emma or the two hundred head of cattle grazing on his section of the ranch.
Their cousin Meg, who was a force in the San Antonio branch of the company, might have taken Keegan’s side, but she’d been distracted lately. Whenever she came to Indian Rock, she holed up in the house that had originally belonged to Holt and Lorelei McKettrick, way back in the 1800s, keeping a low profile and fretting over whatever was bugging her.
He might have talked to Travis Reid, the closest friend he had except for Jesse and Rance, or even Sierra, another of his cousins and Travis’s wife. Sierra and Travis were busy moving into their new place in town, though, and no matter how cordially they might have greeted Keegan, he would have been intruding. They were practically newlyweds, after all, settling in to a life together, and they needed privacy for that.
All of which meant, when it came to trusted confidants, he was out of luck.