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Authors: Nora Roberts

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BOOK: Charmed
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Utterly charmed, Ana stroked the puppy as she sniffed and licked at her. The child was as sweet as sunshine. “I’m very fond of dogs and cats and everything,” Ana told her. “My cousin has horses. Two big ones and a brand-new baby.”

“Really?” The child squatted down and began to pet the sleeping cat. “Can I see them?”

“He doesn’t live far, so perhaps one day. We’ll have to ask your parents.”

“My mommy went to heaven. She’s an angel now.”

Ana’s heart broke a little. Reaching out, she touched the shiny hair and opened herself. There was no pain here, and that was a relief. The memories were good ones. At the touch, the child looked up and smiled.

“I’m Jessica,” she said. “But you can call me Jessie.”

“I’m Anastasia.” Because it was too much to resist, Ana bent down and kissed the pert nose. “But you can call me Ana.”

Introductions over, Jessie settled down to bombard Ana with questions, filtering information about herself through the bright chatter. She’d just had a birthday and was six. She would be starting first grade in her brand-new school on Tuesday. Her favorite color was purple, and she hated lima beans more than anything.

Could Ana show her how to plant flowers? Did her cat have a name? Did she have any little girls? Why
not?

So they sat in the sunshine, a bright pixie of a girl in pink rompers and a woman with garden dirt smearing her shorts and her lightly tanned legs, while Quigley the cat ignored the playful attentions of Daisy the dog.

Ana’s long, wheat-colored hair was tied carelessly back, and the occasional wisp worked free of the band to dance in the wind around her face. She wore no cosmetics. Her fragile, heartbreaking beauty was as natural as her power, a combination of Celtic bones, smoky eyes, the wide, poetically sculptured Donovan mouth—and something more nebulous. Her face was the mirror of a giving heart.

The pup marched over to sniff at the herbs in her rockery. Ana laughed at something Jessica said.

“Jessie!” The voice swept over the hedge of roses, deeply male, and touched with exasperation and concern. “Jessica Alice Sawyer!”

“Uh-oh. He used my whole name.” But Jessie’s eyes were twinkling as she jumped to her feet. There was obviously little fear of reprisals.

“Over here! Daddy, I’m right over here with Ana! Come and see!”

A moment later, there was a man towering over the fairy roses. No gift was needed to detect waves of frustration, relief and annoyance. Ana blinked once, surprised that this rough-and-ready male was the father of the little sprite currently bouncing beside her.

Maybe it was the day or two’s growth of beard that made him look so dangerous, she thought. But she doubted it. Beneath that dusky shadow was a sharp-featured face of planes and angles, a full mouth set in grim lines. Only the eyes were like his daughter’s, a clear, brilliant blue, marred now by an expression of impatience. The sun brought out glints of red in his dark, tousled hair as he dragged a hand through it.

From her perch on the ground, he looked enormous. Athletically fit and disconcertingly strong, in a ripped T-shirt and faded jeans sprung at the seams.

He cast one long, annoyed and unmistakably distrustful glance at Ana before giving his attention to his daughter.

“Jessica. Didn’t I tell you to stay in the yard?”

“I guess.” She smiled winningly. “Daisy and I heard Ana singing, and when we looked, she had this butterfly right on her hand. And she said we could come over. She has a cat, see? And her cousin has horses, and her other cousin has a cat
and
a dog.”

Obviously used to Jessie’s rambling, her father waited it out. “When I tell you to stay in the yard, and then you’re not there, I’m going to worry.”

It was a simple statement, made in even tones. Ana had to respect the fact that the man didn’t have to raise his voice or spout ultimatums to get his point across. She felt every bit as chastened as Jessie.

“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Jessie murmured over a pouting lower lip.

“I should apologize, Mr. Sawyer.” Ana rose to lay a hand on Jessie’s shoulder. After all, it looked as if they were in this together. “I did invite her over, and I was enjoying her company so much that it didn’t occur to me that you wouldn’t be able to see where she was.”

He said nothing for a moment, just stared at her with those water-clear eyes until she had to fight the urge to squirm. When he flicked his gaze down to his daughter again, Ana realized she’d been holding her breath.

“You should take Daisy over and feed her.”

“Okay.” Jessie hauled the reluctant pup into her arms, then stopped when her father inclined his head.

“And thank Mrs….?”

“Miss,” Ana supplied. “Donovan. Anastasia Donovan.”

“Thank Miss Donovan for putting up with you.”

“Thank you for putting up with me, Ana,” Jessie said with singsong politeness, sending Ana a conspirator’s grin. “Can I come back?”

“I hope you will.”

As she stepped through the bushes, Jessie offered her father a sunny smile. “I didn’t mean to make you worry, Daddy. Honest.”

He bent down and tweaked her nose. “Brat.” Ana heard the wealth of love behind the exasperation.

With a giggle, Jessie ran across the yard, the puppy wriggling in her arms. Ana’s smile faded the moment
those cool blue eyes turned back to her.

“She’s an absolutely delightful child,” Ana began, amazed that she had to wipe damp palms on her shorts. “I do apologize for not making certain you knew where she was, but I hope you’ll let her come back to visit me again.”

“It wasn’t your responsibility.” His voice was cool, neither friendly nor unfriendly. Ana had the uncomfortable certainty that she was being weighed, from the top of her head to the bottom of her grass-stained sneakers. “Jessie is naturally curious and friendly. Sometimes too much of both. It doesn’t occur to her that there are people in the world who might take advantage of that.”

Equally cool now, Ana inclined her head. “Point taken, Mr. Sawyer. Though I can assure you I rarely gobble up young girls for breakfast.”

He smiled, a slow curving of the lips that erased the harshness from his face and replaced it with a devastating appeal. “You certainly don’t fit my perception of an ogre, Miss Donovan. Now I’ll have to apologize for being so abrupt. She gave me a scare. I hadn’t even unpacked yet, and I’d lost her.”

“Misplaced.” Ana tried another cautious smile. She looked beyond him to the two-story redwood house next door, with its wide band of windows and its curvy deck. Though she was content in her privacy, she was glad it hadn’t remained empty long. “It’s nice to have a child nearby, especially one as entertaining as Jessie. I hope you’ll let her come back.”

“I often wonder if I
let
her do anything.” He flicked a finger over a tiny pink rose. “Unless you replace these with a ten-foot wall, she’ll be back.” And at least he’d know where to look if she disappeared again. “Don’t be afraid to send her home when she overstays her welcome.” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “I’d better go make sure she doesn’t feed Daisy our dinner.”

“Mr. Sawyer?” Ana said as he turned away. “Enjoy Monterey.”

“Thanks.” His long strides carried him over the lawn, onto the deck and into the house.

Ana stood where she was for another moment. She couldn’t remember the last time the air here had sizzled with so much energy. Letting out a long breath, she bent to pick up her gardening tools, while Quigley wound
himself around her legs.

She certainly couldn’t remember the last time her palms had gone damp just because a man had looked at her.

Then again, she couldn’t recall ever being looked at in quite that way before. Looked at, looked into, looked through, all at once. A very neat trick, she mused as she carried the tools into her greenhouse.

An intriguing pair, father and daughter. Gazing through the sparkling glass wall of the greenhouse, she studied the house centered in the next yard. As their closest neighbor, she thought, it was only natural that she should wonder about them. Ana was also wise enough—and had learned through painful experience—to be careful not to let her wondering lead to any involvement beyond a natural friendliness.

There were precious few who could accept what was not of the common world. The price of her gift was a vulnerable heart that had already suffered miserably at the cold hand of rejection.

But she didn’t dwell on that. In fact, as she thought of the man, and of the child, she smiled. What would he have done, she wondered with a little laugh, if she had told him that, while she wasn’t an ogre—no, indeed—she was most definitely a witch.

*  *  *

In the sunny and painfully disorganized kitchen, Boone Sawyer dug through a packing box until he unearthed a skillet. He knew the move to California had been a good one—he’d convinced himself of that—but he’d certainly underestimated the time, the trouble and the general inconvenience of packing up a home and plopping it down somewhere else.

What to take, what to leave behind. Hiring movers, having his car shipped, transporting the puppy that Jessie had fallen in love with. Justifying his decision to her worried grandparents, school registration—school shopping. Lord, was he going to have to repeat that nightmare every fall for the next eleven years?

At least the worst was behind him. He hoped. All he had to do now was unpack, find a place for everything
and make a home out of a strange house.

Jessie was happy. That was, and always had been, the most important thing. Then again, he mused as he browned some beef for chili, Jessie was happy anywhere. Her sunny disposition and her remarkable capacity to make friends were both a blessing and a bafflement. It was astonishing to Boone that a child who had lost her mother at the tender age of two could be unaffected, so resilient, so completely normal.

And he knew that if not for Jessie he would surely have gone quietly mad after Alice’s death.

He didn’t often think of Alice now, and that fact sometimes brought him a rush of guilt. He had loved her—God, he had loved her—and the child they’d made together was a living, breathing testament to that love. But he’d been without her now longer than he’d been with her. Though he had tried to hang on to the grief, as a kind of proof of that love, it had faded under the demands and pressures of day-to-day living.

Alice was gone, Jessie was not. It was because of both of them that he’d made the difficult decision to move to Monterey. In Indiana, in the home he and Alice had bought while she was carrying Jessie, there had been too many ties to the past. Both his parents and Alice’s had been a ten-minute drive away. As the only grandchild on both sides, Jessie had been the center of attention, and the object of subtle competition.

For himself, Boone had wearied of the constant advice, the gentle—and not-so-gentle—criticism of his parenting. And, of course, the matchmaking. The child needs a mother. A man needs a wife. His mother had decided to make it her life’s work to find the perfect woman to fit both bills.

Because that had begun to infuriate him, and because he’d realized how easy it would be to stay in the house and wallow in the memories it held, he’d chosen to move.

He could work anywhere. Monterey had been the final choice because of the climate, the lifestyle, the schools. And, he could admit privately, because some internal voice had told him this was the place. For both of them.

He liked being able to look out the window and see the water, or those fascinatingly sculptured cypress trees. He certainly liked the fact that he wasn’t crowded in by neighbors. It was Alice who had enjoyed being surrounded by people. He also appreciated the fact that the distance from the road was enough to muffle the
sound of traffic.

It just felt right. Jessie was already making her mark. True, it had given him a moment of gut-clutching fear when he’d looked outside and hadn’t seen her anywhere. But he should have known she would find someone to talk to, someone to charm.

And the woman.

Frowning, Boone settled the top on the skillet to let the chili simmer. That had been odd, he thought as he poured a cup of coffee to take out on the deck. He’d looked down at her and known instantly that Jessie was safe. There had been nothing but kindness in those smoky eyes. It was his reaction, his very personal, very basic reaction, that had tightened his muscles and roughened his voice.

Desire. Very swift, very painful and totally inappropriate. He hadn’t felt that kind of response to a woman since … He grinned to himself. Since never. With Alice it had been a quiet kind of rightness, a sweet and inevitable coming together that he would always treasure.

This had been like being dragged by an undertow when you were fighting to get to shore.

Well, it had been a long time, he reminded himself as he watched a gull glide toward the water. A healthy reaction to a beautiful woman was easily justified and explained. And beautiful she’d been, in a calm, classic manner that was the direct opposite of his violent response to her. He couldn’t help but resent it. He didn’t have the time or inclination for any kind of reaction to any kind of woman.

There was Jessie to think of.

Reaching into his pocket, he took out a cigarette, lit it, hardly aware he was staring across the lawn at the hedge of delicate roses.

Anastasia, he thought. The name certainly suited her. It was old-fashioned, elegant, unusual.

“Daddy!”

Boone jolted, as guilty as a teenager caught smoking in the boys’ room by the high school principal. He cleared his throat and gave his pouting daughter a sheepish grin.

“Give your old man a break, Jess. I’m down to half a pack a day.”

She folded her arms. “They’re bad for you. They make your lungs dirty.”

“I know.” He tamped the cigarette out, unable to take even a last drag when those wise little eyes were judging him. “I’m giving them up. Really.”

She smiled—it was a disconcertingly adult sure-you-are smile—and he jammed his hands into his pockets. “Give me a break, Warden,” he said in a passable James Cagney imitation. “You ain’t putting me in solitary for snitching one drag.”

BOOK: Charmed
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