Talk of the Town
Book one of the In Shady Grove series
Harlequin Superromance April 2013
Shady Grove – where everyone knows your secrets
Once, Neil Pettit was the only thing Maddie Montesano wanted. She tried very trick in the book to keep him, but no luck. It took some time – and a lot of holding her head up while the town gossiped – but she’s made a good life for herself and her daughter.
Now, Neil’s back and is trying to be the father he never was. Maddie so doesn’t need this kind of disruption. Not when the crazy attraction she’s spent years ignoring still sizzles between them. The temptation to give in and have Neil again is strong. And when he offers that dream of forever that she’d abandoned, well, she might give this town something new to talk about…
He sent her a bland look. “I’d like to see my daughter.”
Okay, if he wanted to get technical, he could claim paternity. There was no ignoring the fact that Bree had his DNA and, to Maddie’s endless annoyance, his eyes.
But in every way that counted, she was a Montesano. Maddie’s daughter. The best thing that had ever happened to her.
And the only reason she could never regret being with Neil.
“So who’s stopping you?” Maddie asked, hating that, even at five-nine, she had to tip her head back to maintain eye contact with him. “She’s probably just getting up. I’m sure you can catch her before she heads to soccer practice.”
He frowned. “She’s at home?”
“I believe I made that clear.”
“You left her home.” This time, it wasn’t a question. “Alone.”
“I’m not sure how alone she is seeing as how Pops and my parents live across the street—”
“Isn’t she a little…young to be home by herself?”
Pursing her lips, Maddie pretended to think that through. “Nope.”
“If you can’t find or afford a sitter—”
“Your financial planner deposits an obscenely large amount of money into my bank account each month. I’m pretty sure I can not only afford a sitter, but also a chauffeur, personal chef and full-time bodyguard. And still have cash left over.” She kept her tone mild. Reasonable. Seriously, someone should give her a medal for this unexpected deep well of patience she’d discovered because honestly, the man was getting on her last nerve. How dare he show up unannounced and question her decisions like this? “Bree doesn’t want or need a sitter. She’s eleven—”
“I know how old she is, Maddie.”
Yes. He did. But that didn’t mean he knew their daughter. Her likes and dislikes. How, for all her quiet sweetness, Bree could be as stubborn as her mother. And her father.
“Old enough,” she continued, “and responsible enough to get herself up in the morning, eat breakfast, do her chores and then walk to the park.”
“I don’t want her walking to the park by herself,” he said, but despite his dark expression, the hard line of his mouth, his tone remained quiet and calm.
Shades of the past. He never raised his voice or showed his anger, showed any of what he was feeling. She used to think if she could get him to open up, to share with her whatever emotions and pain lay beneath that hard, stoic exterior, she could save him. Make him love her as much as she’d loved him.
No, he hadn’t changed. But she had. No more fixer-upper men for her, only houses. They were less work.
“What are you doing?” she asked when he pulled his cell phone from his pocket. “You’d better not be calling some sitter service.”
“I’m calling Geraldine.” He held the phone to his ear. “She’ll take Bree to practice.”
“Put that away.” She’d make a grab for it but the chances of her snatching a phone from one of the NHL’s quickest, most agile athletes was zero to none. “Your mom is not going to come into town every morning to drive Bree two blocks down the road.”
The house he’d bought for his parents—a monstrous McMansion of mixed architectural styles, like some hybrid house gone mad—was too big, had too many windows and zero warmth or charm. It was also on thirty prime acres of real estate ten miles outside of town.
“She won’t mind,” he insisted, but he ended the call before speaking with Gerry—who would only be more than happy to do anything he asked. “I’d feel better if Bree had a ride.”
“Do you really think I’d let Bree do something if it wasn’t safe?”
“No,” he said, his quick answer doing little to appease her. “But I don’t think you’re seeing the big picture here. Everyone knows Bree is my daughter.”
She snorted softly. Yeah, everyone but him. He only remembered when it suited him and didn’t interfere with his lifestyle, his schedule, his goals. “What does that have to do with anything?”
He had the balls to look at her as if that was the dumbest question he’d ever heard. She wanted to kick him in the shin.
“Bree’s a target,” he explained slowly, as if she was one of his airheaded bimbos, the desperate, obvious women who hung around the ice rink in their short skirts and tight shirts hoping to get his attention. “Someone could kidnap her or use her to get to me.”
Maddie’s jaw dropped, and for a brief moment in time, she found herself speechless—an unusual occurrence, one her three older brothers would all surely be sorry they missed.
“Is that what this is about?” she finally managed to ask. “Your money?”
“It’s about keeping Bree safe.”
He seemed so sincere, so completely honest, she almost believed him.
But she’d learned the hard way that what Neil said and what he meant were often two very different things.
Noticing she still had her gloves on, she yanked them off and tossed them onto the floor instead of whipping them at his head. “I have news for you and that enormous ego you’ve dragged in here. Not everyone in Shady Grove knows, or cares, who you are. Bree has lived here her entire life and never had any problems.”
He crossed his arms, his biceps stretching the sleeves of his shirt. Looked down on her, all big and solid and imposing, as if he could intimidate her. The man must have forgotten who he was dealing with. “I don’t want her walking to the park by herself.”
“Too bad.” She jabbed a finger at his chest, stopping short of making contact and puncturing his lung. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can dictate how I raise my daughter—”
Maddie’s words died in her throat when his hand whipped out and grabbed her wrist. Damn him, he’d always been fast. “Bree’s my daughter, too.”
The feel of his fingers against her skin, so strong, so warm, was familiar yet new, too. Being close to him, inhaling the spicy scent of his cologne—some fragrance she didn’t recognize—and seeing the ring of darker blue in his eyes made it all too easy to forget the past twelve years. Reminded her of a time when all she’d wanted was to have him hold her hand, to be next to him. Always.
How she would have done anything, been anyone, to stay with him.
“Seems to me, she’s only your daughter when it suits your purposes.” Which was Maddie’s own fault. Her punishment. One she deserved, but their daughter didn’t. “Because I distinctly remember when she was born—”
“Don’t,” he warned roughly.
But she was too far gone to stop the words, to stop from reminding him of what he’d said, how he’d acted. “You didn’t call her your daughter then. All she was to you then, all she’s ever been to you, is your greatest mistake.”