Long-simmering desire brought Brandon Harper to Emma Stover's bed. And on the same earth-shattering night, a sinister crime left a prominent Whitehorn citizen dead. When Emma was arrested for murder, her passionate liaison proved a flimsy alibi. Though Brandon proclaimed her innocence with warriorlike fierceness, he did so out of duty--not love. For this wounded heir kept his heart sequestered...just as Emma kept certain secrets--like her birth mother's identity--under lock and key. Could destined love set them both free?
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September 01, 2009
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Excerpt from The Birth Mother by Pamela Toth
Brandon Harper pulled his black Lexus into an empty space in the Hip Hop Caf� parking lot and cut the engine. While he waited for an old woman to climb stiffly from the car on his left, he tucked his cell phone into his jacket pocket and glanced with a bemused expression at the bunch of flowers lying on the seat next to him.
On this beautiful April day he'd driven up to Whitehorn from Reno instead of flying just to give himself some time to think, and he'd brought the yellow roses as a peace offering for the waitress he'd left so abruptly the last time he'd seen her. He knew he should have called Emma before now, but he'd been busy. No sooner had he put out one fire at work than another flared up.
While he'd debated what he wanted to say to her, a month had slipped by, and then another. Postponing the call had gotten easier. By the time he'd come to Whitehorn for the holidays, seeing her would have been awkward, involving explanations he hadn't been prepared to give.
He'd assumed she would fade from his mind like an outdated stock market prediction. She certainly wasn't his usual type, but he found himself thinking about her at the oddest times--wondering how she was, what she was doing. Whom she was spending her time with.
Unfinished business always made Brandon a little nervous, so he'd finally decided to find out whether his mind had been playing tricks on him or if Emma was truly as sweet as he remembered. As tempting.
She had good reason to be upset with him, he conceded. The last time he'd been with her, he was summoned back to Reno for an early morning meeting with a nervous investor over a deal that threatened to turn as sour as outdated milk. Thinking back, Brandon should have chartered a plane instead of driving, but he hadn't been thinking too clearly at the time.
Emma had been a virgin. That hot late August night in her apartment he'd only meant to kiss her, to acknowledge the bond they shared, both having been abandoned by their mothers when they were young, both still struggling with unanswered questions. Emma's response to that first kiss had been so honest, so open, that it knocked him sideways. After he had tasted her mouth and felt it yield to him, the hazy part of his brain that still functioned had tried to slow things down, to give her the chance to change her mind. Instead she'd stepped back into his arms, her eyes dark with desire and her lips softly parted. By the time he realized she was a virgin, it was way too late to stop.
Now he figured the talk they should have had afterward was eight months overdue. And he still had no idea what to say to her.
First he had some fence to mend, as the locals would put it, but challenges didn't concern him. Nothing came easy in this life and he'd always gone after what he wanted. Some people accused him of being ruthless; he called it persistence.
Brandon grabbed the roses he'd bought on impulse and followed a group of people toward the caf�. When he glimpsed Emma through the window, a jolt of desire went through him. Time hadn't embroidered her image in his mind. With her long auburn hair pulled back into some kind of smooth knot, exposing her rounded chin and the curve of her neck, she looked both warmly familiar and yet different in a way he couldn't quite pinpoint. His grip tightened on the flowers. He'd been a fool to neglect her for so long, but Brandon Harper rarely made the same mistake twice.
From inside the caf�, Emma glanced at the large party coming through the front door as she headed back to the kitchen. She was going on a much-needed break; let the other waitresses deal with the newcomers.
Pouring herself a cup of coffee, she sank gratefully down at a small table half hidden by stacks of cartons and put her tired feet up on an empty chair. Not for the first time, she wondered what she was still doing in Whitehorn now that her reason for coming here had blown up in her face like an M-80 with a defective fuse.
It had taken Emma months to trace her birth mother, and weeks more to deal with the news that the meeting Emma had so looked forward to would have to take place at the nearby women's prison. As hard as the truth had been to accept, she'd come too far to leave Montana without finishing what she'd started.
Emma could still remember how nervous she had been when she'd gone to meet Lexine Baxter. Emma had never even seen the inside of a jail before that day and the only citation she'd ever received was for a defective taillight.
At the prison, she was processed and shown to the visitors' room. Part of her wanted to bolt, fantasies intact, but her curiosity and her need for answers were too strong. Finally a guard brought in an older woman who sat on the other side of the Plexiglas window.
Emma had been so busy staring that she nearly forgot to pick up the phone. She could see no family resemblance in her mother's face, etched in bitter lines, nor the brassy hair, grown out at the roots, nor the flat, hard gaze that bored into hers.
The woman was nothing like the parent Emma had prayed would rescue her from each new foster home in which she'd been dumped, alone and scared. Face-to-face with reality, she struggled to keep an open mind.
At first Lexine seemed pleased to see her, but her attitude shifted when Emma asked how she could have abandoned her own baby. Instead of taking responsibility, Lexine piled one excuse on top of another. She'd gotten mixed up with a married man, had to scramble for work, become involved with the wrong people, had bad breaks, believed Emma was better off without her. She was so intent on painting herself as a victim that she even blamed the men she killed for provoking her.
The lack of sympathy Emma hadn't bothered to hide sent Lexine into a rage, the abrupt change in her a shock to witness. She accused Emma of looking for her because she might have money hidden away. Considering Lexine Baxter's present circumstances, the idea was ludicrous. The sheer unfairness of the accusation brought tears to Emma's eyes, and Lexine's scathing remarks about Emma's appearance broke her heart.
Finally she'd run from the room in tears with the sound of Lexine's harsh laughter echoing in her ears. Just thinking about it still made Emma want to cry.
For so many years she had dreamed of finding her birth mother. Now Emma felt as though she'd been rejected for a second time; she was drifting, unable to make plans, unwilling to move on. Except for the couple who raised her, there was nothing left for her back in South Dakota; at least here she had a job, a few friends, and a roof over her head.
She moved to push her glasses back up and then remembered that she'd replaced them with contact lenses a couple of weeks before. Lexine's cruel comments about her appearance had been a factor in her decision, but Emma was pleased with the change and she'd gotten several compliments at work. As far as she was concerned, her improved appearance was the only good thing to come from the whole painful incident.
The confrontation with Lexine wasn't the only reason Emma would never forget this little Montana town. For a while Brandon Harper had played a big part in her reluctance to leave, until it became painfully obvious that what had been a turning point in Emma's life had been nothing more than a one-night stand for the wealthy entrepreneur.
If Brandon had been back to Whitehorn since he'd crawled out of her bed, she hadn't seen him. She tried not to think about him and she'd long since given up on the idea that he might contact her.
She sipped her coffee and glanced at the clock. Now that she'd actually met Lexine, who had to be one of the most infamous citizens Whitehorn had ever seen, Emma was thankful she had followed her instinct and not told anyone in town about their relationship. If Emma's luck held, it would stay her secret until she was long gone.
"Emma! Where's Emma?" Charlene, one of the other waitresses, demanded, poking her head through the door. She saw Emma sitting at the table with her feet up. "You better get out here, girl. Someone's here looking for you and he's got flowers."
Emma gaped at the older woman. "Is this another one of your jokes? If you make me get up for nothing, I'll see that the next party with little kids sits at your station."
With one finger, Charlene drew a big X on her ample chest. "Cross my heart. But if you aren't interested, I'll be more than happy to take the roses and the fellow that brung 'em off your hands. He's enough to make a statue drool."
Curious now, Emma got to her feet. Charlene had to be mistaken. "What would Will think about that?" Emma asked. Will was Charlene's boyfriend of a dozen years and a fixture at the counter every morning for breakfast.
Charlene chuckled as Emma brushed past her. "Who says I'd tell Will?" she muttered.
Emma took one look at the man seated at his usual table in her section and froze. Brandon Harper! Had her thoughts somehow conjured him up?
She was about to duck back into the kitchen when he glanced up and saw her. He got to his feet and held out a sheaf of yellow roses wrapped in green paper. His smile was every bit as lethal as she remembered, his eyes just as blue. Heat flooding her cheeks, she managed to walk over to his booth without stumbling.
"Hi," he said as easily as if it had been days and not months since she'd seen him. As if their last meeting had been here at the Hip Hop and not her tiny apartment. "How have you been?"
Emma wanted to demand why he even bothered to ask when it was obvious he hadn't given her a thought since he'd slid from her arms like the snake he was and left without a backward glance. Instead of throwing her order pad at his head, she dragged up a return smile and tried to act as though a floral gift from an old lover was an everyday occurrence. Considering that Brandon had been her first, it was a little hard to pull off.
"I'm fine," she replied with a careless toss of her head, ignoring the roses. "Would you like a menu?"
Brandon's expression tightened and he laid down the flowers. "Emma--" he began again.
She glanced around and tapped her order pad with her pencil. Several customers seated at the counter had turned to watch. "I'm busy," she hissed, the heat of embarrassment warming her face. She'd always hated being the center of attention. "Shall I get you a menu or are you ready to order?"
He sighed and sat back down. "I guess you can bring me a menu," he replied, his eyes narrowing as he studied her.
For a moment Brandon's gaze held hers. Emma refused to soften her brittle smile. If she relaxed her features even a little bit, she might just cry instead.
By the time Emma brought his steak sandwich and fries, Brandon's smile was firmly back in place.
"You forgot your flowers," he said after she'd set down his plate with a thump.
Wordlessly she picked up the bouquet as though it were a piece of meat that had turned bad and made a beeline for the kitchen. When she came back with his iced tea, he resisted the temptation to ask whether she'd bothered to smell the roses before chucking them in the garbage. "Can you sit for a minute?" he invited instead, refusing to be discouraged by her unfriendly attitude.
"I just came off my break." There was more ice in her voice than in his drink.
"Take another one," he suggested cavalierly, trying to look at the bright side. At least she wasn't indifferent.
Her response to his suggestion was like the blast of an air conditioner. "Not a chance."
Brandon leaned closer. "I like the new look." He'd realized she wasn't wearing her glasses anymore, that she had contacts now. Of course it wasn't technically new to him; she certainly hadn't been wearing her glasses in bed, but she'd worn them at work.
Her hand went to her face, as if to push the glasses back up her nose. At the last moment she fingered her tiny gold earring instead. "I'm so glad you approve." She glanced around, but her section was empty except for two elderly couples who were talking over sandwiches and coffee.
"So why are you here?" she demanded, a hand on her hip.
He'd been about to tell her that he hadn't been able to get her out of his mind, but her tone of voice struck his ego like a sour note at a symphony. He'd have to work up to it gradually.
"I'm visiting my relatives," he drawled instead, even though he hadn't given the Kincaids a thought until now.
A man's pride could only take so much rejection at one time. He'd brought flowers, which she'd done her best to ignore. He'd been willing to apologize for neglecting her, had she given him the chance. Instead she'd attempted to turn him into a human Popsicle with her icy gaze. Perhaps he needed to rethink the entire situation before he made any more tactical errors.
A young couple sat in a nearby booth, hands clasped across the table. The man was wearing a battered Stetson and scarred boots. Their clothes showed hard wear. Emma glanced over her shoulder, but the couple appeared to be much more interested in each other than in anything the caf� might have to offer.
Brandon found himself envious of the rapt attention the rather plain woman paid the man as he talked. What would it feel like to be the recipient of such adoring concentration, even when one lacked wealth or power, as it was obvious the other man did? Suddenly Brandon felt a raw emptiness inside he knew the sandwich in front of him would do nothing to fill.
While he was trying to not stare at the other couple, Emma walked away. She took with her Brandon's last hope that roses and a smile might smooth her ruffled feelings so they could pick up where they'd left off back in August.