By: Anne Marie Winston

Chapter One

Garrett Holden strode up the cracking sidewalk and stepped onto the low front porch of the dilapidated half-house. He shook his head in disgust as he looked around the tiny dwelling. This was what he got for insisting that he be the one to notify the woman mentioned in his stepfather Robin Underwood's will of Robin's death.

This wasn't an area of Baltimore he usually frequented, with its tiny, narrow duplexes all crammed together on the streets across from the far reaches of the Johns Hopkins University campus. The front yards were minuscule. The backs, as he'd discovered when he'd driven down the alley behind the house on his initial pass, consisted largely of concrete slabs, not a blade of grass in sight. He'd been relieved to find a parking space within sight of the address where he could keep an eye on his imported sports car. Though he hadn't seen anyone suspicious, the area looked like a prime target for crime. He couldn't imagine how on earth Robin had gotten involved with anyone from this locale.

The lady apparently had a green thumb, he thought as he surveyed her small square of earth. Late summer flowers were everywhere, blooming in great untidy bursts of color all around the border of the little yard, growing through the sagging picket fence. A pink rambler rose completely blotted out the sunlight from a full half of the rickety board porch that stretched across the front of the place. There were a few rotted boards on the porch floor that had broken through and he stayed close to her front door, hoping that the owner had had the sense to keep the main entry where people walked in better repair than the rest.

He put his finger on the bell and pressed hard. No answering sound alerted the occupants of a visitor. Pulling open the torn screen door, he rapped sharply at the wooden door. A surprisingly clean white lacy curtain blocked his view through the window in the upper part of the door. Still hearing no sound of anyone walking toward the door, he rapped again. "Hello? Anyone home?"

"Just a moment." The voice was feminine, faraway and distinctly frustrated.

He waited impatiently, glancing twice at his watch before a rustling at the curtain preceded the opening of the inner door. A face stared out at him.

Garrett stared back. She wasn't what he'd expected. At all. Actually, he hadn't known what to expect, but this—this wood nymph wasn't it. It was a fanciful thought for a man who dealt largely in numbers, but it was strangely appropriate.

For one thing, she wasn't nearly as old as he'd expected any acquaintance of Robin's to be. For another, she was one of the most strikingly beautiful women he'd ever seen. Even with her red-gold tangle of tresses jammed into a messy pile atop her head and corkscrew curls escaping to bob wildly around her small, heart-shaped face, she was beautiful. Her eyes were an arresting vivid blue-green, large and lushly lashed, with brows that rose above them on her high forehead like perfect crescents. Her cheekbones were slanted, her little chin almost too pointy. But her mouth was full and pink in contrast to the rest of her creamy satin complexion.

And for yet a third thing, she was, well, stacked was the only word that sprang to mind. Beneath a soft jade T-shirt that brought out the color in her eyes and the casual jean shorts was a lithe, curvaceous figure that even the baggiest of shirts couldn't hide.

And hers wasn't baggy. If anything, it had been washed once too often and had shrunk a size or two. The shirt was ripped across one shoulder, baring an expanse of silky-looking skin that made him want to reach through the torn screen and touch. In her hands she carried a handful of multicolored ribbon that fluttered and clung to her body as she moved. One silky strand had flipped upward to curl around her left breast, outlining the full, rounded mound and his gaze followed the path of the ribbon as he tried to fathom her connection to his stepfather.

Abruptly he faced the truth he'd been hoping hadn't been true at all: this woman must have been Robin's lover. Why else would he have been seeing someone so young and...unsuitable for him?

Belatedly he realized that he was staring at her. He flushed, annoyed with himself.

"May I help you?" Her gaze was direct and unsmiling, her words clearly enunciated in a prim British accent.

"I'm looking for Ana Birch."

"You've found her." Her voice was deliberate. "I'm on a bit of a schedule—" schedule came out "shedule," in the British fashion "—and I'm really not interested in whatever it is you're selling." She began to turn away.

"Oh, I think you'll be interested in this," Garrett said in a grim tone, remembering why he had come to this dreary little neighborhood in search of her. "My name is Garrett Holden. Are you acquainted with Robin Underwood?"

"Garrett!" She held out a hand and her face altered immediately, breaking into a blinding smile that completely transformed her serious, intense expression into one of beauty and warmth. Lively intelligence and a hopeful light shone from her eyes as she opened the door and stepped onto the porch, looking past him. "Robin's spoken of you often. Is he with you?"

Garrett stared at her for a moment, ignoring her offered hand as her smile faltered. She didn't know. She didn't know. A fierce wave of anger and grief roared through him like a wind-fueled fire. "Robin's dead," he said shortly.

"Wha...?" She put a hand to her throat as ribbons slithered to the floor. She shook her head slowly, speaking carefully. "I'm sorry. I believe I must have misunderstood."

He stared at her coldly, not bothering to hide the contempt he felt. "You didn't misunderstand."

Her eyes widened, the pupils going black with shock. Every ounce of pink drained from her face, and he was absently surprised at just how much color she'd really had before. Now she was white as paper. She groped for the porch rail, then carefully lowered herself onto it in a seated position. The whole time, her gaze never left his. "Please tell me this is a very bad joke," she whispered.

He shook his head. He suppressed the feelings of guilt and sympathy that rose within him, reminding himself that this woman didn't need his sympathy. Unless it was to console her on the loss of the wealthy catch she'd been hoping to land.

"What happened?" Her voice was nearly soundless.

"Heart attack," he said succinctly. "He just didn't wake up. The doctor says he doubted he even felt anything." He didn't know why he'd added that last, except that he was human, after all, and the woman in front of him, whatever her motives, looked genuinely stricken by the news. Then again, maybe she was saying goodbye to the loss of the fortune she'd probably been expecting to harvest once she'd talked the old man around to marriage.

She was shaking her head as if she could deny the reality of his words. Straightening, she crossed her arms, hugging herself and appearing to shrink into a smaller presence. "When is the funeral?"

Nonplussed, it took him a moment to respond. Surely she hadn't expected to be invited to attend. "It was yesterday."

If it were possible for her to lose any more color, she did. She turned away from him and he could see her shoulders begin to shake. Then her knees slowly gave way and she sagged to the floor.

Garrett reacted instinctively. Leaping forward, he caught her as she crumpled. The essential male animal beneath the civility of centuries momentarily clouded his mind as his brain registered the close press of yielding female flesh, the rising scent of warm woman—

She squeaked and yanked herself away from him. She hadn't fainted, as he'd first assumed. And now her face wasn't white, it was a bright, unbecoming red as she flushed with embarrassment.

He only noted it with half his brain, because the other half was still processing the moment before.

Then sanity returned. God, he was disgusting. This woman had been his stepfather's...plaything. His seventy-three-year-old stepfather and old was she? Twenty? Twenty-one? And here he was, enthralled by her body as well. He was truly disgusting. And so was she. No way could she have been sexually, aroused by, or satisfied by Robin. Yuck. It didn't even bear thinking about.

She was backing away from him as his thoughts ran wild. "Excuse me, please. I have to...have to go inside."


But he was too late. She'd fled, yanking open the rickety screen and the door behind it with incredible speed and slamming both behind her. He was left staring at the undulating lace curtain that covered the door's window. Ribbon still lay strewn across the porch.

He swore. "Miss Birch? I have to talk to you." He raised his voice. "Miss Birch?"

No answer.

Then he heard the faint sound of weeping. Deep, harsh, stuttering sobs underscored with unmistakable grief. The kind of sounds it would have been unmanly for him to have made, though he'd felt like it a time or two since Robin's manservant had come to him four days ago and reported that the master appeared to have passed away during the night.

Well, that killed any hope that she'd return. No woman with swollen eyes and a runny nose would willingly be seen in public. Dammit!

He pulled a business card and his gold pen from his pocket and scrawled a note across the back of it: You are mentioned in the will. Call me.

That ought to get results, he thought cynically as he strode back to his car, glad to be leaving the dingy, depressing area with its faint air of menace. In fact, he'd lay odds that he heard from her before the end of the day. If she thought there was money involved, the grief-stricken act would fly out the window in a hurry.

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