Authors: Sherryl Woods
Don't miss this acclaimed Adams Dynasty story from
New York Times
bestselling author Sherryl Woods about learning to fall in love again.
Texan Dani Adams was through with single dads. Never again would she brush away their children's tears or bandage scraped knees. Instead, she'd care for the sick animals brought to her veterinary practice. She'd find fulfillmentâwithout the heartache.
So, darn Duke Jenkins and his adorable twins. The sexy single dad had just moved to townâ¦and he was determined to make Dani his kids' mother! His soul-searing kisses, warm embraces and his children's antics were quickly melting her resolve. But was Dani heading for another disappointmentâ¦or down the aisle to meet her groom?
NATURAL BORN TROUBLE
he day had already been too long and it wasn't even noon.
Dani Adams sank down into the chair behind her desk and vowed to catch a quick nap before her afternoon appointments. She'd been up since three a.m. with an emergency, a dog that had been struck by a drunk driver on a flat stretch of Texas highway just outside of town.
The sheriff's urgent call, when he was already en route, had awakened her. Minutes later, he had brought the bruised and bloodied animal in, and she'd worked for hours trying to save it. The poor old thing was hanging on by a thread.
She probably should have put him to sleep, but every time she thought of his owner, eighty-year-old Betty Lou Parks, she balked. Betty Lou adored that dog. He was her constant companion, riding beside her in the rusty old car Betty Lou drove into town once a week to pick up groceries. Dani had heard the anxiety and choked-back tears in Betty Lou's quavery voice when she'd called to check on her beloved pet and that had been that. Dani had promised to do
everything she could to save the old woman's precious Honeybunch.
she thought, smiling. The poor dog was probably embarrassed every time his master called to him in public. Mostly proud German shepherd, he had just enough mixed blood in him to give him a slightly whimsical look. Dani knew better than to be fooled by his appearance, though. He was fiercely protective of Betty Lou, which was probably why her children hadn't insisted long ago that she move into town from the isolated house where she still planted a garden every single spring.
Dani suspected most of her fee would come from that garden. Tomatoes, potatoes, beans, squash, herbs. Betty Lou raised them all, more than enough to last her through winter and to barter for some of her other needs. She was as independent now as she had been fifty years ago when her husband had died and left her alone with three small children to care for. Dani admired her resilience. She could use a little of it now just to get her through the rest of the day.
Sighing when her mind kept whirling and sleep eluded her, she picked up the batch of mail her assistant had left on her desk and out of habit sorted it into neatly organized stacks. Bills went into one pile, junk mail into another, professional newsletters and magazines into a third. When she came to a cheap business-sized envelope addressed in childish printing, her heart skidded to a halt. Automatic and too-familiar tears stung her eyes.
She already knew what she would find inside, a crayon-bright picture and a precisely lettered note. She had a whole drawer full of them, all from Rob
Hilliard's two girls, children who had almost been hers.
Even after two years, every time one of these envelopes came it tore her apart inside all over again. Walking away from Robin and Amy when things hadn't worked out with their father had been the hardest thing Dani had ever had to do. For a time the envelopes had stacked up, unopened, because to see these expressions of love and know that she would never be a parent to the children who created them broke her heart. Phone calls left her shattered for hours, sometimes days.
Had she and Rob been married, had she been a real mother to the girls, at least there would have been the kind of custody arrangements that came with divorce. The girls would be with her partâif not allâof the time.
As it was, she had no rights, no legal standing whatsoever in their lives, just the powerful bond of a love that had deepened over the four years she had been with their father. Four years, during which expectations of permanence had been raised. An engagement that had sealed that expectation. Wedding plans had consumed Dani's thoughts and enchanted the girls.
And then it had all come tumbling down. Rob had met someone else and broken the engagement just weeks before the scheduled wedding date. Dani had been crushed. The girls, understanding none of what was going on, had been devastated when Dani had moved out of the house and left town.
Now distance and the attitude of Rob's young and insecure girlfriend precluded even the most casual of visits. Tiffany thought the girls would adjust more
readily if the break were clean. Tiffany thoughtâ¦ Tiffany thoughtâ¦ Dani hadn't seen much evidence that Tiffany even had a brain.
As soon as the sarcastic criticism surfaced, Dani chided herself for being uncharitable. It was hardly Tiffany's fault that Rob had no spine to speak of.
At any rate, contact had been limited to whatever calls and drawings the seven-year-old and five-year-old girls could manage. They'd been astonishingly ingenious about it, too.
Now, though, they were slowly adapting to the change. The vows to hate Tiffany forever and ever were less frequent. So were the calls and notes to Dani. The spaces in between almost gave her time to heal, but it took only an envelope like this one to rip the wound open all over again and leave her feeling raw and vulnerable. How did adoptive mothers stand it when courts ripped their children from their arms to return them to the natural parents? How did they survive the loss? she wondered. How did they make the love stop? Or fill the empty space inside their heart?
For a moment she debated leaving the envelope unopened, but there seemed little point to it. Sooner or later she would open it anyway. Like removing a bandage with a sudden yank, this would be quicker, if no less painful.
The sheet of paper inside was a piece of Rob's expensive, embossed business stationery, she noted with amusement. He would probably have a cow if he knew they'd gotten into it and used it for coloring.
She studied the page, her eyes misty. Amy had clearly done the drawing. It was as vibrantly colorful as the little girl herself. A shaky American flag
predominated, dwarfing two stick-figure childrenâRobin and Amy, according to the names neatly printed under them by the older Robin. Each child was holding what Dani assumed were meant to be sparklers.
“Happy Fourth of July” was printed across the top in red and blue letters. “We Miss You” had been added in bright pink and purple at the bottom. “Love, Robin” was as precise as a seven-year-old hand could make it. Amy's signature was twice the size of her sister's and bore little evidence of any understanding of capital and small letters.
“Oh, babies,” Dani murmured. “I miss you, too.” She stared at the picture for as long as she could bear it, then tucked it into the drawer with all the others. She would answer the note tonight, though she had no idea if the petty Tiffany allowed the children to see the occasional cards and letters Dani sent to them so they would know that she still thought of them and loved them, that she hadn't deliberately abandoned them.
The knock on her office door had her hurriedly wiping away telltale traces of tears.
“Yes, Maggie, what is it?”
Her nineteen-year-old temporary assistant poked her head in. She was clearly fighting a smile. “I'm really sorry to interrupt you. I know you need a break after the night you had, but we have an emergency up front.”
“It's not Honeybunch, is it?” she asked, already pulling her white coat on over her slacks and short-sleeved blouse.
“No, no, it's nothing like that,” Maggie soothed in a calming tone that proved what a good vet she, too,
would make one day. “I think you'd better come and see for yourself.”
Dani followed her assistant down the corridor to the reception area. Even before they got there, she could hear two voices. They were arguing. They were also very young.
“Told you not to take him out of the bowl,” one was saying.
“I didn't,” the other replied. “Not for long anyway.”
Dani glanced at Maggie. The teen's lips were twitching with amusement again.
“I can't go back out there,” Maggie said, drawing to a halt outside one of the treatment rooms. “I know I'll laugh and obviously this is a very serious crisis to them.”
“Let me guess,” Dani said. “We're not talking a puppy or a kitten here, are we?”
“A goldfish?” Dani guessed.
“You got it.”
Dani closed her eyes and sighed. “You could have handled this, you know.”
“Not me. I haven't even finished pre-vet school,” Maggie said. “Besides, they wanted a real veterinarian. Said they could pay, too. Fifty cents.”
“Terrific. Just terrific.”
Plastering a smile on her face, she stepped into the reception area and confronted two boys, no more than eight, identical twins from the look of them. Both had spiky blond hair and freckles and the same front tooth missing. If she hadn't made up her mind never to let
another child get to her, these two would have stolen her heart on the spot. As it was, she cloaked herself in a brisk, professional demeanor.
“I'm Dr. Dani Adams,” she told them. “What seems to be the problem?”
“You're a girl,” one of them said, eyes wide.
“Yeah, we wanted a real doctor,” the other stated firmly. “Not a nurse.”
Chauvinist little devils, she concluded, trying very hard not to bristle.
“I am a doctor. You can see my license, if you like. It's hanging over my desk.”
The two boys looked at each other, seemed to reach a silent, joint conclusion, then nodded.
“I guess it's okay,” one said with unflattering reluctance. “Show her, Zachary.”
A smudged little hand emerged from a pocket. Zachary opened his fist to display a sizable, but very dead goldfish.
“We think he might be a goner,” Zachary said, tears obviously threatening. “Can you save him?”
Dani hunkered down in front of them and took the patient. “I won't lie to you. It's serious, all right. Let me take him in the back and see if there's anything I can do.”
The second twin regarded her suspiciously. “Can we come?”
“I think you'd better wait out here,” she said. “I promise I won't be long.”
Fortunately, she had learned long ago working for the last town vet to expect anything. She kept a drawer filled with suitable pet “coffins.” In the back she placed the dead goldfish atop some cotton in an old jewelry box, waited a suitable length of time, then
started for the front, struggling to keep her expression serious. Maggie was having no such luck, though she was trying to stifle her chuckles.
“Hush,” Dani whispered as she passed.
Back out front she found the two boys once again trying to place blame. Worried gazes shot up when she returned. At the sight of the box, lower lips trembled and tears clearly threatened.
“He's a goner, isn't he?” Zachary asked pitifully.
“I'm sorry,” she said quietly, handing the box to him. He took it gingerly, clearly more intimidated now that he knew the fish was indeed dead. “It was too late. There was nothing I could do. Goldfish really don't do very well outside their bowls.”