Kat Cavanaugh was sixteen when she hitchhiked out of Persuasion, West Virginia and vowed never to return. Who could blame her? She'd just stumbled upon her father's adulterous affair, found out she was pregnant, got dumped by her boyfriend, and kicked out of her house and school . . . all in a single afternoon. Twenty years have gone by and Kat's back - gorgeous, rich, and looking for an apology from everyone who'd turned their backs on her. First on that list is Riley Bohland, the boy who broke her heart before she could tell him about the baby.
But Kat didn't count on Riley having his own axe to grind, or that he'd be just as delicious as he was at sixteen. She also didn't count on her heart opening at the sight of him. When their anger ignites a passion intense enough to burn through two decades of secrets and lies, Kat must question everything she thought she knew about her past. And what about her future? The only place to find the answers may be in Riley's arms.
The girl most likely to…
/This book is dedicated to Steven R. Ivory, with gratitude and love./
This novel exists because people believe in me. I thank everyone at St.
Martin's Press for their patience, especially Matthew Shear, Jennifer Enderlin, and my editor, Monique Patterson. I thank my agent, Irene Goodman, for cheering me on when I needed it most. I thank the many readers who said they couldn't wait for my next book, and, by the way, would it be coming sometime this /century/? Thanks for hanging in there, everybody.
I am honored to have friends and family who continue to walk with me on this journey, especially Steven and my best friend Arleen, along with Gran, Conor, Kathleen, Suzie, Marilyn, Shawn and Cameron, Paul, Kim, Catherine, Liz and John, Matt, and Sean and Diana. I thank the network of people who did something (or a lot) to get me to the settled place I am todayJehanne, Kathy, Lou, Matthew, Pam, Lisa, Ron, Dana, Bernice, Sharon, Sylvia, and Kenmo Trinlay Chodron and my fellow students at the TMC. Last, I thank the various plumbing and heating professionals, concrete and masonry workers, electricians, locksmiths, roofers, cabinet and flooring contractors, and landscapers who have helped me transform my little house into a home. I am abundantly blessed.
This book is a work of fiction. I took liberties with Baltimore street names and geography to suit my story. The town of Persuasion, West Virginia, and its residents exist only in my imagination. Thank you to Madeline Bowman's parents for placing the winning bid at the 2006 Potomac Classical Youth Ballet Silent Auction, allowing me to use their daughter's name for a fictional character.ONE
Four shirtless construction workers posed on the roof like suspects in a police lineup. But because of the direction of the afternoon sunand the fuzziness of her twenty-year-old memoryKat couldn't tell which was the father of her child and the only man she'd ever loved.
She squinted, raising a hand to block the glare. /Him?/ No. The man on the far left was too short and stocky. Even at sixteen, Riley Bohland had been over six feet tall. /That one?/ No. Riley's hair had been curly and dark and his shoulders much broader, even as a kid.
Then recognition hit her with a thud, pinning her feet to the wet West Virginia clay. Her breath went shallow. She broke out in goose bumps from head to toe.
Is he up there? Nola's whisper was squeaky with excitement, and she gripped Kat's upper arm so hard it hurt. One of them is staring at you!
Is that Riley? Is that him? Holy shit, this is going to be pure, Grade-A drama!
As the man in question cocked his head and frowned down at them, a hammer hanging useless in his hand, Kat nodded her silent reply. /Oh yeah, that's Riley Bohland all rightthe bastardall grown up, filled out, and still walking around advertising the fact that God had Supersized his order of good looks, and it really pisses me off./ Nola put her lips to Kat's ear. You said he was cute, but seriously, hon, you could have gone into a little more detail.
Kat's homegrown heart pounded under her Parisian bra as she stared at him. This wasn't going to be as easy as she'd imagined. Why couldn't Riley have gone flabby over the years like a normal guy? Not that physical appearance was the measure of a man, but why did he have to be so well preserved? He was still long and lean, without an extra inch anywhere. His arms were corded with ropes of muscle. A pair of beat-up jeans hung low on his spare hips.
The instant he dropped the hammer and started down the ladder, Kat's whole world shifted. Suddenly, her righteous return felt all wrong. The glamorous Fifth Avenue makeover that had thrilled her yesterday seemed embarrassingly over-the-top up here in the Allegheny mountains. The three-inch stiletto boots that looked so sexy on the city sidewalk were sinking into the muck.
I think I might black out, Kat mumbled.
Man up, sister, Nola said. This is the moment you've been waiting for.
Do what you came here to do.
Riley's work boots left the last rung of the ladder and hit the mud with a /splat/. He turned. He took graceful, confident strides in Kat's direction. One step. Two. Spine straight. Chest rock-solid. Long arms relaxed.
Lips curled in a sneer.
I'll be in the car. Nola ran away faster than a scalded dog.
Three steps. Four. Five.
Kat fluffed her razor-precise hairstyle with her perfectly manicured fingers. This was it. Riley's face came into focus. She could see those impossibly blue eyes blaze with an intensity that made her stomach flip.
She'd practiced this a million times. She could do it. Sweet revenge was within arm's reach. Kat took a deep breath, steadied herself, and prepared to drop the bomb on the man whose selfishness had forever determined the course of her life.
Without warning, a big, black SUV drove right in front of Kat, splattering mud from her bangs to her Blahniks. She let out a yelp of shock, which was accented by muffled obscenities from inside the car.
As she tried to wipe some of the glop from her eyes, her brain seized with panic. Her makeup! Her hair! Her clothes! /This can not be happening/.
Riley walked right up to her. He moved so close that she could smell hima potent mixture of memories, sweat, and rage.
Where the /hell/ have you been?
Uh, Baltimore. Kat let go with a nervous laugh, still wiping her eyes.
She told herself that she must be having the mother of all bad dreams.
She'd be waking up any minute.
Riley leaned closer. Even through her gunked-up eyelashes, she could see every day of thirty-seven years of life on that chiseled face. She watched his nostrils flare. If this was a dream, it was a very detail-oriented one.
Riley bent down so that his nose nearly touched her own. From behind straight, white, clenched teeth he asked, /What in the name of God have you done with my son?/TWO
Riley shouldn't know about her son. How could he? /No one/ from her past knew about Aidan, not even her own mother. There was something very wrong here.
Kat took a moment to regroup. According to her plan, she was, at this moment, supposed to be informing Riley Bohland of his paternity and watching him fall to his knees with the weight of his loutishness. And she was supposed to be doing that while looking hot enough to scorch the man's eyeballs.
But instead, she was covered in slime and had just been denied the right to utter the punch line she'd perfected with twenty years of practice in front of mirrors! And store windows. Every shiny surface she'd ever encountered, really. /I was pregnant the day you dumped me, you lying, selfish jerk/.
Construction noise had stopped. Kat realized she had an audience for what was shaping up to be the most completely fucked-up moment of her life, which was saying something.
The driver of the SUV slammed his door shut. Very sorry, ma'am, he said.
Tell me my son's name. Riley tightened his fists at his sides. His body trembled with tension. Is he healthy? Is he happy? What have you done with my goddam /boy/?
Kat closed her eyes, feeling the tears mix with the mud and mascara. She choked out an answer. His name is Aidan. He's twenty and in his second year at Johns Hopkins.
Riley said nothing. He gave a slow, disgusted shake of his head, then spat in the mud. You're the coldest bitch on the face of the earth and I will never forgive you for what you've done to me. His voice was flat.
He turned away.
Apparently, their big reunion was over.
Forgive /me/? Kat waved her muddy arms as she shouted at his back. What do you mean, you'll never forgive /me/? I don't forgive /you/! Riley, stop! Get back here! How did you find out about Aidan? He kept moving.
Don't you dare walk away from me! Wait!
He didn't wait, which was almost a relief, since she had no idea what to say next.
Riley called over his shoulder, Leave your contact information with your dad so my lawyer can find you.
Kat's arms collapsed at her sides. She went numb for an instant, just before the anger rushed in, hot and bitter and spreading its familiar vigor through her mind. She could not allow Riley to turn his back on her today, just like he'd done when she was sixteen. Twenty years ago, in the span of a single afternoon, she learned she was pregnant, got tossed out of school, kicked to the curb by her boyfriend, and sent away by her parents. Every minute since had been tough as hell, but she'd clawed and fought and survived so that one day/today/she could blow into town and get satisfaction. She deserved it. Riley Bohland owed it to her. Her parents owed it to her. The whole stinking, stupid, nothing town of Persuasion, West Virginia, owed it to her! /And this is all I get?/ Nola returned to her side and patted her shoulder. I think he really dug your outfit, she said.
Madeline Bowman may have put on a few pounds since tenth grade, but Kat decided she looked a hundred times better without the freakishly big high school hair she once had. Madeline chatted away while escorting her two guests to their rooms at the Cherry Hill B and B, which, she wanted them to know, had been under her proprietorship for the last six years.
Madeline was so pleasant that she even told Kat not to worry about the clumps of mud she was depositing on the polished oak staircase.
I almost died when you walked in the front door, Kat! Oh my God! I had no idea that was you making the reservations on the phone! I suppose you're using your married name these days? Madeline unlocked the door to Nola's room, got her settled in first, then escorted Kat down the hall to her suite. She lowered her voice to a whisper. I have to admit that I'm just /dying/ to know what happened to you! We always expected to see Kat Cavanaugh's face on a milk carton, or on /America's Most Wanted/.
But obviously She scanned the splattered velvet of Kat's pencil skirt.
You were off to the big city, having some sort of amazing life that no one back here knew a thing about! You were always such a brain in school. I bet you went to Harvard and made a million dollars or something! She opened the door. I'm sure this isn't as glamorous as you're used to, but it's the nicest accommodations in town, by far. It's our honeymoon suite!
Kat let Madeline's entire hyperactive soliloquy go without comment, including the obvious question of who in their right mind would want to honeymoon in Persuasion. She looked around the room. A cozy sitting area was done in a mix of overstuffed modern pieces and Victorian tables, all arranged around an ornately carved mahogany fireplace, which Madeline was quick to point out had been upgraded to gas. Next, Madeline demonstrated the convenience of the small kitchenette with its coffeemaker, refrigerator/freezer, and microwave. The bedroom was next on the tour, and Madeline opened a set of double doors to reveal an antique four-poster bed so high off the ground that it required its own step stool. Kat made a mental note not to attempt to scale that sucker after a couple glasses of wine. Then came the generous bathroom, with a double sink, a shower, and a deep antique claw-foot tub with brass faucet.
Kat smiled to herself. This room ran just shy of two hundred a night and it didn't even faze her. She'd been stinking rich for only three months, but as it turned out, she was a natural at it. Who knew?
Thank you, Madeline. It's really nice.
So, you're married?