“Dad! She’s coming, she’s coming!” Andy bounded down the porch stairs just as Kane exited his pickup. He waved a piece of paper in his hand, his face wreathed in excitement. “She’s coming for my birthday next month!”
Kane Fielding eyed his son curiously as they headed for the back door leading into the house. “Who’s coming for your birthday?”
Andrew skipped next to his side. “Megan is!”
His brows rose in surprise and a little disbelief. “Megan Sanders? The woman who writes those books you read?”
Kane knew who Megan was. How could he not when that’s all his son ever talked about—Megan Sanders and the Andy’s Adventures stories she wrote. Some days he regretted the day he’d walked into the bookstore in the city and had asked for a good children’s book for his son, who was just starting to read. The clerk had told him that Andy’s Adventures was the hottest series for young boys. The catchy title had amused Kane and enthralled his son enough to write the woman a fan letter that had evolved into a friendship.
“Care to tell me how this came about?” Kane asked, not certain he really wanted to know.
“I wrote her a letter and invited her to come and visit for my birthday.” Andrew grinned at him, seeming pleased with himself. “And I told her she could stay with us and that you wouldn’t mind.”
Kane held open the screen door for Andrew, then followed him into the kitchen. Maintaining a long-distance friendship with the author was one thing, but to actually invite her to Linden? “Andrew, you don’t even know her.”
“Yes, I do, and you do, too.” A frown creased Andrew’s forehead. “She calls all the time, and you’ve talked to her on the phone.”
Kane set his lunch box on the counter, unable to refute Andrew’s claim. After his and Megan’s initial introduction, he only spoke to her briefly each time she called, just enough to let that soft voice of hers tie him inside out and make him wonder, for a second or two, what she was really like before he handed the phone over to Andrew. He’d never minded her talking to his son because Andrew received so much pleasure from their conversations.
“Talking to her on the phone and receiving letters from her isn’t the same thing as really knowing her,” Kane tried explaining.
The pure and simple joy in his son’s eyes slowly died, and his shoulders slumped. “You don’t want her to come visit?”
Kane scrubbed a hand over his jaw, hating the disappointment in Andrew’s voice, and that he’d caused it. “No, it’s not that—”
“Will you at least read the letter she wrote?” he asked, a hopeful catch to his voice.
Kane stared at the piece of paper Andrew extended toward him, then casually moved to the sink and turned on the tap. “Why don’t you read it to me while I wash up?”
Kane listened to his son recite the letter, about Megan telling him she’d love to drive out and visit and stay with them as long as it was okay with his dad. Kane cringed. Great, she was leaving the decision up to him.
Once Andrew was done, he looked at Kane expectantly. “So, can she come, Dad, please?”
Wiping his hands on a dish towel, he released a long breath. “I don’t think her staying with us is a good idea.”
He gave Andrew a pointed look. “Because it’s not proper.” He hadn’t so much as dated since his wife, Cathy, had died, at least not anyone in town. He could just imagine what a field day the gossips would have if they discovered he had a woman staying with him, no matter how platonic the arrangement.
Tears welled in Andrew’s eyes and his throat bobbed as he swallowed. “This is all I want for my birthday. I was gonna take her to school to meet all my friends. I told them she was coming, and if she doesn’t, they’re gonna think I was lying.”
Kane’s heart twisted. Andrew rarely asked for anything, and he hated denying him the one thing he wanted so badly. Pushing his fingers through his thick hair, he turned his head and glanced out the kitchen window. He knew people would talk and speculate, but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d been under scrutiny. And when did he care what the small-minded people of Linden thought, anyway?
“Please, Dad?” Andrew whispered.
How could he say no? Making Andrew happy was his main concern. And if having Megan nearby meant so much to his son, he was willing to take a little heat to give him his wish. Megan was, after all, just a friend visiting. A purely normal occurrence, he told himself, just as long as she didn’t expect him to entertain her.
“She can stay here,” Kane said on an expelled rush of breath.
Andrew’s eyes grew round with delight and he danced around excitedly. “Yippee! Come on, Dad, let’s go call her!” He raced into the living room.
Kane followed at a more leisurely pace, wondering what, exactly, he’d gotten himself into.
Megan Sanders’s heart faltered as she stared at the sight in front of her. A man, a gorgeous specimen of a man, stood in the center of the barn she’d just stepped into, his back to her. He wore a pair of faded jeans that hugged long, muscular legs and a faded blue T-shirt that shaped a well-defined chest and back. Black hair, dusted with wood shavings and too long for traditional standards, curled at the nape of his neck.
This had to be Kane Fielding, she thought, tamping the sudden fluttering in her belly that had little to do with the nerves she’d been experiencing on her two-day drive to Linden.
Busy concentrating on his carpentry, he hadn’t heard her pull up to the main house or enter the barn. Breathing in the scent of man, sawdust and linseed oil, she watched as he sanded a flat piece of wood, then slowly caressed the length with long, strong fingers. He turned to examine the oak in the light, giving her a glimpse of his sharp, defined features and a full, sensual mouth. He was, by far, the most blatantly sexy man she’d ever encountered.
Knowing she couldn’t just stare at him forever, she cleared her throat. “Excuse me?”
He whirled around, piercing green eyes narrowing on her. She’d envisioned Andy’s father to be a larger version of the blond-haired boy, not this…renegade.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said, willing her pulse to a normal cadence. “I just tried the main house, but no one answered the door.”
He watched her walk fully into the barn and approach him, his expression darkening, turning cautious. His mouth was firm, unsmiling, and his brooding gaze raked over her. So much for a warm welcome, she thought apprehensively. Maybe she had the wrong house. Her smile faltered.
“Can I help you?” His voice was deep, smooth and rich, belying the chilling intensity of his eyes.
“I’m hoping you can.” She offered a smile. “Are you Kane Fielding?”
“Yeah, I’m Kane Fielding.” Laying the wood on a nearby makeshift table cluttered with tools, he faced her again. He rested his hands on his hips, his stance defensive. “What can I do for you?”
Ignoring his ominous frown, she took the three final steps that separated them and extended her hand. “I’m Megan Sanders.”
Obvious relief relaxed his features but didn’t erase the caution. “You’re Megan Sanders? You look nothing like your publicity photo.”
Tentatively, he grasped her outstretched hand, his long fingers wrapping around her slender fingers. Heat radiated up her arm, and her heart thumped in her chest. The swift, irrational attraction knocked her for a loop but oddly felt right. She’d learned enough from Andy’s letters and her brief conversations with his father to know she’d like Kane, but she never dreamed she’d have this instantaneous response to him. Like she’d known him for years instead of only a handful of minutes.
Crazy, but the feeling was undeniably there.
“It’s amazing what a makeup artist can do with straight hair and ordinary features,” she said in an attempt to lighten the mood. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
Kane let go of her hand, thinking she was far prettier than the small, black-and-white glamor shot printed on the back flap of her books—the one Andrew showed him every time he received one of Megan’s books. Ordinary features? Hardly. She had thick, shoulder-length auburn hair a man could lose his hands in and big blue eyes full of sparkle and life. Wearing a minimum of makeup, she looked fresh and wholesome, not at all what he expected of a best-selling author. She was petite, but the distinctly feminine curves outlined beneath her simple lavender dress and those shapely legs more than made up for her lack of height.
His body tightened in a subtle but unmistakable way.
Irritated that she had the ability to affect him so strongly, he kept his tone curt. “I wasn’t expecting you until later this evening.” And his first thought upon seeing her had been that she was a new representative from Human Services, sent by his in-laws to check on his parenting abilities. It wouldn’t be the first time someone dropped by unannounced.
She clasped her hands behind her back and smiled despite his brusque attitude. “Actually, I made better time than I anticipated, and I didn’t expect to find anyone home.”
Normally, no one would have been. He only worked half days at the sawmill on Fridays. He was home by one and used the extra time to get chores done around the house and make any appointments needed for Andrew or himself. The schedule worked well and afforded him more time with his son.
When he didn’t reply, she shifted on her feet and asked, “Is Andrew home from school?” An anxious quality tinged her voice.
“Not yet.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “The bus should be here any time.”
“I can’t tell you how much it means to me to be able to spend some time with Andrew.”
He regarded her a little disbelievingly. “You do this for all your fans?”
“Andrew is the first,” she admitted. “When he told me all he wanted for his birthday was for me to visit, I couldn’t bring myself to disappoint him.”
The kind gesture astounded him. “Why my son?”
Her expression softened, as did the incredibly blue hue of her eyes. “I care for Andrew very much.”
“You hardly know him,” he said, more gruffly than he intended.
“You’d be surprised how much I know. We’ve corresponded for a year and a half. Surely you must have read the letters he’s written telling me about himself, and you.”
If he answered her question honestly, she’d think he didn’t care about his son. But the truth was far more complicated than a simple yes or no.
Tightening his jaw, he began putting away the tools scattered on the table. With a snap of his wrist, he tossed a tarp over the half-finished bookcase he was making for Andrew’s birthday. “Why don’t we go up to the house and you can wait for Andrew where it’s cool?” And I can figure out what I’m going to do about this mess I’ve made of things and what I’m going to do about you.
He passed her, and she followed him outside into the sunshine and fresh air and up to the house. Entering from the front door, they walked through a small living room and into the kitchen.
He headed for the refrigerator. “Would you like something to drink? I have apple juice or beer.”
“Apple juice sounds good,” she said, sitting in one of the wooden chairs at the table.
He filled a glass with the cool liquid and set it on the table in front of her. Returning to the beer he’d left on the counter for himself, he took a long swig.
“How long do you plan on staying here in Linden?” he asked.
Her eyes met his. “At least a week, if it’s not a problem.”
His gaze strayed to the way she absently chewed on her bottom lip. He wondered if her mouth would taste as sweet and soft as it looked. Hell, a week would feel like a year.
He took another drink of beer, hoping it would douse the slow burn traveling through his veins. It didn’t. “You have that kind of free time?”
“One of the perks of being a freelance writer.” She grinned, her eyes dancing with humor. “You make your own hours and you don’t have to answer to anyone except yourself, and on occasion, your editor.” She took a drink of her juice. “So, do you mind?”
He blinked. “Do I mind what?”
“If I stay for a week.” She rubbed her finger down the condensation gathering on her glass.
Yeah, he was beginning to mind a whole lot. What in the hell had he been thinking to tell Andrew that this woman, or any woman, for God’s sake, could stay with them? And for an entire week?
“Linden is hardly a tourist town,” he said, thinking to dissuade her. “There’s not much here to keep you busy for a couple of days, let alone a week.”
“I’m not really interested in touring the town,” she replied, easily thwarting his plan. “I’m here to spend time with Andrew, if you don’t mind my staying here, that is.”
Realizing a woman like Megan was probably used to more luxurious accommodations than what he had to offer, he said, “The house is small and nothing fancy.”
He lived a simple life with Andrew, and he wouldn’t apologize for the small house he’d inherited when his father had died. He’d been all of seventeen then, his younger sister, Diane, twelve, and he’d made this house the best home he could for the both of them. Except it hadn’t been good enough for his wife. Nothing had been good enough for Cathy Linden after she’d learned the truth he’d kept hidden for most of his adult life.
Her mouth quirked. “I don’t need anything out of the ordinary. A couch to sleep on will be fine.” She stood, took her glass to the sink, and then stopped in front of him. “I was hoping you’d let me do the cooking while I’m here, sort of a thank-you for letting me stay here.”
A light feminine fragrance teased his senses and tightened his gut. “That’s not necessary. In fact, I think—”
“I insist,” she said, cutting him off before he could finish telling her that staying in his home wouldn’t be such a good idea. “Besides, Andrew mentioned you’re not real fond of cooking.”
He set his empty beer bottle on the counter, feeling frustrated and edgy. “Andrew talks too much,” he grumbled. Pulling in a deep breath, he met her wide, guileless gaze and tried again. “Megan, about staying here—”
The rumbling noise of a bus in the distance, then the squeal of brakes drifted from outside, stealing Megan’s attention. She glanced toward the kitchen window, her eyes bright with expectation. “Is that Andrew?”
He mentally swore at the timely interruption. “It should be.”
Her breath seemed to catch, and her eyes sparkled with excitement. “I want to go meet him.”
And then she was gone, on her way through the living room and out the front door, leaving him standing alone in the kitchen, cursing fate and his son’s bright idea…and that he’d stupidly agreed to it.
A minute later he stepped outside and onto the front lawn. He stopped next to where Megan was waiting as Andrew hopped down the bus steps. Slinging his backpack over his shoulder, he started their way. His steps slowed when he saw the two of them, his gaze darting from Kane to Megan.
A dazzling smile curved her mouth. “There he is,” she whispered, her voice catching on nervous laughter.
“Megan!” Andy’s shout pierced the air, causing a flock of birds nestling in a nearby tree to scatter. He ran toward her, his short legs pumping as fast as they could. He flung himself against her, nearly knocking her off balance, and wrapped his arms tight around her waist. “You’re really here!” he said, his shrill voice muffled against her breasts.
She returned the hug, her eyes shimmering with a rush of tears. “Of course I’m here, silly.” She ruffled her fingers through his blond hair. “I told you I would be.”
Andy untangled himself from her arms and looked at her. A sudden frown stole his bright smile. “Why are you crying, Megan?”
“Because I’m happy,” she said, and gave a small sniffle. She cupped his chin in her palm, her adoration for him obvious. “You’re even more handsome than the school picture you sent me.”
Andy beamed. “And you’re beautiful.” He glanced at Kane, expectation and joy shining on his youthful face. “Don’t you think Megan’s beautiful, Dad?”
Don’t drag me into the middle of this, son. He met her gaze, watching as a flush stole over her cheeks, enhancing the simple beauty in question. “Yeah, she’s beautiful,” he admitted.
She ducked her head and looked away, but not before he’d seen the pleasure lighting her eyes. The sun haloed her bent head, threading gold through the strands. Cinnamon fire, he thought, wondering if her hair felt as warm and silky as it looked.
They started toward the house, and Andy shifted his Star Wars backpack to the other shoulder. “How long have you been here?” he asked, squinting at her.
“Not long at all,” she replied, smoothing a hand lightly over the crown of his head, the gesture affectionate and maternal. “Just enough time for your father and I to get acquainted.”
“Yeah?” Andy’s gaze bounced from Megan to Kane, then back again. “So, do you guys like each other?”
“We like each other just fine, son,” Kane interjected smoothly.
“I knew you would.” An impish grin creased the dimple in Andrew’s right cheek. Grabbing Megan’s hand, he pulled her up the porch stairs. “Come on, Megan, I want to show you my room and where I keep all your books.”
And in that moment, as he watched the pure joy on his son’s face, Kane knew he’d lost the opportunity to send Megan away.
At the threshold, she stopped and glanced over her shoulder at Kane. The enchanting smile she gave him heated his temperature ten degrees and made him question his sanity for allowing her to stay with them for a week.
“Thank you, Kane,” she said softly. Before he could reply she was whisked away by his impatient son.
He stood on the porch, knowing her gratitude was for letting her spend time with Andrew, but he couldn’t help but feel like she was thanking him for something more.
Releasing a caustic laugh, he strode down the stairs and toward his workshop. “Who are you kidding, Kane?” he murmured to himself. “What would a woman like her see in a simple country boy like yourself?”
Old, buried bitterness scratched its way to the surface, and he quickly shoved it down. One woman had hated him for his insufficiencies. He wouldn’t let another get that close, no matter how tempting she might be.
“Look at what my dad made me,” Andy said, showing Megan the novelty wooden bookends on his dresser bracing a row of books. He fingered the intricately carved and brightly painted locomotive. “The front and back end of a train. Cool, huh?”
“Yes, they are.” She eyed Kane’s handiwork, impressed with his creative flair. She’d seen a brief glimpse of his talent in the barn, but hadn’t realized the extent of his ability until now.
“I put all of my Andy’s Adventures here, cuz they’re special.” He adjusted a hardbound volume that stuck out an inch farther than the rest before bending to open the last dresser drawer. “All my other books are in here. I don’t have any other room for them.”
She glanced into the open drawer, crammed with books of all sizes and variety. “You must love to read.”
“Yep. Dad likes me to read, too.” He pushed the drawer shut. “He’s always bringing me books from the big bookstore in the city, but yours are my favorite.”
“I’m glad.” She sat on his bed and reclined on one forearm, discovering a simple pleasure in watching Andy’s enthusiastic energy. She smiled, unable to recall the last time she’d done something just for herself, even something as simple as a vacation. Something spontaneous and adventurous and wonderfully reckless…like driving to Linden to meet the father and son who’d consumed so much of her thoughts over the past year and a half.
“And look at this,” he went on, moving to a corner of the room. Straddling a wooden seat shaped like a real saddle, he secured his sneakered feet into lifelike stirrups, pulled back on leather reins and rocked. The smooth, perfectly sloped rockers moved soundlessly on the wooden floor. “He made me this rocking horse a couple of years ago for Christmas.”
The rocker was like nothing she’d ever seen in any store, a one-of-a-kind original. “It’s almost as big as you are.”
“Yep.” He flicked the reins, tousling the dark brown braided rope that made up the horse’s mane. “Dad said he wanted to be sure I didn’t outgrow it too fast. Did I ever tell you about the fort and swings he made for my school?”
“No.” But she had a feeling he was going to tell her every little detail.
Smiling contentedly, she listened as Andrew continued to rave about his father’s virtues. Andrew’s incessant chatter sounded like music to her hungry soul, filling up every empty, aching place in her. He made her forget for a brief time that the dreams she’d cultivated while growing up in various foster homes had been shattered by a husband more interested in climbing the corporate ladder than giving her the family they’d talked about. Somewhere along the way having children dropped to the bottom of his list of priorities.
After her divorce three years ago she’d immersed herself in her writing. She’d created a children’s series, which had helped to fill the emptiness. She’d thought Andy’s Adventures, and the precocious little boy she’d created had been fulfilling enough until Andrew Fielding had written her a fan letter and completely changed her life, giving her writing a new direction.
“Megan, you okay?”
A small, warm hand curled around her arm, and she glanced into his concerned face. Immediately, she sat up, hating that she’d somehow worried him. “I’m fine, why?
“Because you looked so sad.”
She smiled for him and made up an excuse. “I was just thinking that I promised your father I’d make dinner. Maybe we should go see what we should have tonight.”
Andy agreed, giving her a spontaneous hug that nearly unraveled her. “We’re gonna have so much fun together, Megan.”
She smiled into his baby soft hair. The week was going to fly by. “I’m planning on it.”
He pulled back, eyes wide and brimming with anticipation. “Do you think we can bake chocolate chip cookies while you’re here? They’re my favorite, and Dad’s, too.”
Arching a brow, she stood. “He bakes cookies?”
Andy clasped her hand as they headed toward the kitchen. “Naw, he buys the hard kind from the grocery store, but he likes the soft, homemade ones I sometimes sneak home from Grandma’s.”
She nodded in understanding. “Then homemade chocolate chip cookies it will be.”
“Yes!” he said zealously, and Megan wondered about the mischievous sparkle in his eyes.
Andy shoveled a forkful of mashed potatoes into his mouth and washed it down with a big gulp of milk that left a thin mustache on his upper lip. “You’re the best cook we ever had, Megan,” he said, wiping his mouth with his napkin.
“She’s the only cook we’ve ever had, son,” Kane interjected, before Megan took Andy’s comment the wrong way and thought he had a steady stream of women traipsing through his house.
Andy shrugged and continued to eat like he hadn’t been fed in a week.
Kane’s gaze shifted, meeting Megan’s across the table. Reluctantly, he agreed with Andy’s assessment of Megan’s culinary skills. He hadn’t been grocery shopping in almost a week, yet she’d managed to make a hearty meal any man would appreciate. She’d taken frozen, boneless chicken breasts, thawed them in his microwave—which he hadn’t even known the contraption was capable of doing—then she’d breaded the poultry and fried it in oil and herbs until the outside was brown and crispy and the meat tender and juicy.
“Aren’t these mashed potatoes great, Dad?” Andy asked, spooning a second serving onto his plate.
Kane frowned. “They aren’t much different from the ones I make.” Except her mashed potatoes didn’t have lumps, and they tasted buttery, unlike his bland, paste-like spuds.
“Megan adds butter and milk,” Andy told him.
“A family secret?” he asked wryly, feeling a prick of annoyance over his son’s obvious heroine worship. Okay, so he wasn’t the best chef, but it wasn’t as though they’d starved before Megan’s cooking.
“More like Betty Crocker’s secret.”
He stopped dragging a piece of chicken through the best gravy he’d ever tasted. “Pardon?”
“Betty Crocker. The brand for mashed potatoes,” she explained, slanting him a curious look. “The directions call for milk and butter.”
“Of course.” His stomach churned, and a damnable muscle in his cheek ticked. “I’ll have to pay better attention next time.”
He could tell his comment puzzled her, but to his relief she let their conversation about mashed potatoes drop. Instead, she turned her attention to Andrew. “So, what are we going to do for your birthday?” she asked him.
“I want a big party,” he said, indicating with the stretching of his arms just how big he wanted the get-together to be. “The biggest ever, with you and Dad, my friends from school and Grandpa and Grandma Linden.”
Kane put his fork on his empty plate, hating to be the one to crush his son’s hopes. “Andy, you know Grandpa and Grandma are planning on giving you a party on your birthday Thursday evening.”
His chin shot up a notch. “Will you be there?”
He never was. He’d never been invited to the yearly birthday bash the Lindens held in their grandson’s honor, and although he knew they wouldn’t make a scene if he went, he preferred to spare Andrew the obvious tension between adults on his special day. A weary sigh escaped him. “No, I won’t be there, but we’ll spend Friday together. Maybe we can go get a pizza, play some arcade games, then go to the ice-cream parlor for a banana split.”
Andy wasn’t falling for the subtle bribe. “That’s not the same, Dad.”
But that’s the way it was and had been for the past five years. He didn’t have the mental energy to break tradition. Sensing Megan’s gaze on him, he glanced at her, expecting to see condemnation in her blue eyes for his nonparticipation. He had every intention of shooting her a mind-your-own-business kind of look, but the honest-to-goodness caring softening her expression stopped him cold.
Abruptly, he pushed back his chair and stood, suddenly feeling suffocated. He didn’t want this woman’s compassion, didn’t like her probing where he was most vulnerable. He barely knew her and didn’t like that she could affect him so strongly.
“If you’ll excuse me, I have work to do in my workshop.” Giving her a curt nod and ignoring her startled expression, he turned and left the kitchen.