A MOTHER'S WISH
Nine years ago, Winnie Porter tore herself away from the open adoption agreement allowing her at least some contact with the infant son she was forced to give up. Now, after her dictatorial grandmother’s death, she’s suddenly driven to seek out the boy, just to make sure he’s okay. What she doesn’t know, when she finds Robbie in tiny Tierra Rosa, New Mexico, is that his adoptive mother died the year before, leaving both Robbie and his father – Aidan Black, a landscape artist known as the “Irish Cowboy” – still reeling.
At Winnie’s sudden, and very unwelcome appearance, Aidan demands that Winnie leave before causing the still-grieving child any more pain. Except the very heavens seem to be conspiring to keep her there, until she and Robbie become friends…until the reclusive, chronically grouchy Aidan realizes that the light and laughter so conspicuously absent since June’s death has miraculously returned.
Except, when Robbie discovers his new “friend’s” true identity, how can Aidan both protect his son and claim the one thing he never thought would be his, again? Perhaps he can…with a little help from above?
It’d been years since Aidan had even been down to the eighty-year-old, single-room adobe where he and June had lived when they first moved to Tierra Rosa. They’d bought the property for its own sake, holing up in the Old House until Aidan’s career had taken off well enough to build the New House, a half mile further up the mountain. A half mile further away from civilization. Not that either Aidan or June had been hideously famous, not then, not ever – certainly not like the A-list actresses and shock jocks and such who called New Mexico home – they simply valued their privacy. Aidan, especially. In fact, he’d balked about that damn magazine spread, but June...
The back of his throat clogged as, despite top-of-the-line shocks, the truck shimmied and jolted down the dirt road, partially obscured by clumps of live oak and lemon-flowered chamisa, until shuddering to a stop in front of the house.
Snoozing in a coppery patch of sun on the low porch, the border collie instantly jumped to attention, yapping; a second later, the screen door banged open and Winnie Porter appeared, hands shoved in her jeans’ pockets, the ebbing sunlight glancing off features a lot harder-edged than he remembered. But then, when he’d last seen her she’d been a very pregnant eighteen-year-old, her defiance worn down – according to June – by water weight and too many sleepless nights.
As he’d been then, Aidan was struck by her height, her almost mannish stance in cowboy boots that were all about utility rather than style, how there was nothing soft about her, anywhere. Even her hair was stick-straight, a million strands of wheat blowing helter-skelter around heavy-lidded eyes and pronounced cheekbones.
“Figured you’d be here soon enough.”
Her gaze was dead-on, unflinching. Certainly not a look designed to provoke concern about a woman being out here all alone, never mind that the only place safer would be a padded cell.
Aidan climbed down from his truck, coming just close enough for purposes of communication. Close enough to catch the determined set to her mouth. The instant that mouth opened, though, he cut her off with, “How the bloody hell did you find us?”
She shoved a stray chunk of her hair behind her ear. Unlike before, when black gunk had rimmed her eyes and she’d sported more studs than a country singer’s costume, she wore no jewelry, no makeup that Aidan could tell.
“Online,” she said, and his brain snapped back to attention. “That magazine article from a couple years back? At least, that you were living in Tierra Rosa—”
“You gave up the right to be part of Robson’s life more than eight years ago, when you begged – begged – us not to send you any more information about him.”
He saw the flash of regret. “I know. But if you’d give me a chance—”
“To do what? To disrupt a nine-year-old’s life?”
“No!” The word boomed between them. “That was never my intention! It still isn’t,” she said, but Aidan saw something in those dusky eyes that said there was more, the kind of more that was tensing his whole body. “Yeah, I knew it was a long shot, showing up out of the blue—”
“Long shot, hell. Try idiotic.”
Winnie backhanded her bangs out of her eyes. “And if there’d been any way of contacting you, I would’ve cleared things with you and June first—”
“Robbie’s mother is dead.”
She literally reeled. “Oh, God...I had no idea—”
“Just as you had no idea this house was on my property, I suppose.”
“I didn’t,” she said, her brows nearly meeting underneath the tangle of hair on her forehead. “Oh, for heaven’s sake – it wasn’t like I was gonna tell anybody I was looking for you! Not until I got here, at least. So how would I have known?”
Aidan shifted to cross his arms. Her damn dog sidled up to him, wagging its tail, trying to play mediator. “So you just came here on the off chance that...what?”
She rammed her hands into her back pockets, somehow managing to look sheepish and determined at the same time. “That somehow I’d be able to see him. That’s all. Just...see him.”
“D’you think I’m daft?”
She almost smiled. “I doubt anybody’d call your sanity into question.” The dog trotted back, all eyes for her mistress; Winnie bent over to pet her, her features softening in the peachy light. Then she lifted her eyes again, her voice gentle as rainwater when she said, “June hasn’t been gone very long, I take it?”
Aidan braced himself against the wave of pain, even though it no longer hit as high or hard as it once did. The guilt that it didn’t, though, sometimes felt worse.
“A year ago July. She was already sick when the magazine people came around.” He paused, his eyes riveted to hers. “It’s been a rough couple of years. Especially on the boy.”
Winnie broke the stare first, her gaze shifting toward the firey glow behind the trees. “I can imagine,” she murmured, before her gaze met his again. “My grandmother died, too. A week or so ago.”
An event, he instantly surmised, that had something to do with Winnie’s sudden appearance. An image popped into Aidan’s head of the tall, commandeering woman with hair the color of a rooster’s comb and a gaze hot enough to peel flesh from bone. “My condolences.”
Winnie’s mouth stretched tight. “Not necessary. As you may have gathered, Miss Ida was definitely a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of gal. And ‘her way’ did not include helping raise her teenage granddaughter’s bastard.”
Aidan tensed. “You swore the adoption was your idea.”
“I was eighteen. Legal, maybe, but nowhere near ready to raise a kid on my own. And on my own is exactly what it would’ve been, since the baby’s father had vanished faster than a summer thunderstorm and my grandmother would have kicked me and the baby out on our butts.”
“You really think she would gone that far?”
Winnie blew a humorless laugh through her nose. “You met her. What do you think? And at the time,” she said, in that careful voice people use when the emotions are far too close to the surface, “I was totally on board with the open adoption idea. Bein’ able to keep tabs on my baby, hear from time to time how he was getting on...” She stopped, once more shoving her breeze-stirred hair out of her face, and Aidan braced himself, thinking, No. Don’t. Except he wasn’t at all sure whether the order was meant for Winnie or himself.
“So what happened?”
“I made the mistake of holding my baby, that’s what. Knowing what’s best and what you feel...” Her eyes glistened. “But I thought, for my son’s sake, I can do this, I can let him go. Except it’s a little hard to let go when there’s this thread keeping you tied to each other. After a few months I knew if I didn’t cut that thread completely, I’d go crazy.”
“Then why are you here now?”
“Because when Ida died,” she shot back, “it hit me that I had nobody else in the entire world I could call family. No aunts or uncles, no cousins, nothing. And maybe this doesn’t make sense to anybody but me, but I just...I just wanted to make sure my kid was okay, that’s all. For my own peace of mind.”
“Fine,” Aidan said in a low voice. “You’ve seen him. So you can go back home with a clean conscience.”
Winnie’s head tilted on her long neck, the serrated ends of her hair sliding across her shoulders. “You would think,” she said sadly, and realization slammed into Aidan, that it wasn’t anger making his skin crawl.
It was fear.
Even in the waning light, there was no mistaking Aidan Black’s don’t-mess-with-my-cub expression. If nothing else, at least Winnie could comfort herself knowing the adoption had taken so strong. Hey, if the roles had been reversed, she’d probably see her as a threat, too.
Except the roles weren’t reversed, they were what they were, and the fact was, a glimpse hadn’t been enough. Why she’d ever thought it would be, she’d have to dissect at some future date. Not that she wasn’t aware how thin the ice was she was skating on, just being here to begin with. But now that she was here—
“I don’t suppose you’d consider letting me spend some time with Robbie?”
“You’re not serious?”
Winnie felt like she was trying to swallow five-year-old peanut butter. “Just as a friend. As your son, not mine. And you have every right to tell me to go to
“Back to Texas would be sufficient, I think.”
Tears threatened. No, she thought. “I know you don’t trust me—”
“And you’re wastin’ both of our times,” Aidan said, hands up, starting toward his truck.
“You could try to get to know me, you know!” she shouted toward his back. “The me I am now, not the whacked out teenager you met exactly once, and only for an hour at that. I swear,” she called out when he reached the driver side door, “I would never do anything to hurt my own child! To hurt any child!”
Aidan turned. “Maybe not intentionally. But the effect would be the same.”
“How?” she said, coming off the porch, hearing Fool, fool, fool echo inside her head, helpless as usual to stop her mouth once it got going. “Aidan, I promise I’m no more interested in turning back the clock than you are. I’ll even respect if you’ve never told him he’s adopted—”
“Of course he knows he’s adopted!” Aidan said, long fingers squeezing the door handle. “But not only has he shown absolutely no curiosity about his birth parents, he’s still torn up about his mother’s death. Doncha think that’s enough stress for a nine-year-old to deal with at one time?”
“Yes, I do. I’ve been there. So I’ve got a pretty good idea how Robson’s probably feeling. Hell, he drags his pain around with him like a ball and chain. And yeah, it’s that obvious,” she said at Aidan’s raised brows, deciding it probably wouldn’t do to point out that Aidan did, too. She swallowed. “If you don’t want him to know I’m his birth mother right now, I’m fine with that.”
For the first time, she sensed Aidan’s wavering.
“Please,” she said softly, briefly touching his arm, muscles stiff underneath a layer of weathered denim. “I know I’m asking a lot, and you’ve got every right to say no—”
“That I do,” he said, his eyes going flinty again. “I’m sorry, Winnie,” he said, like he wasn’t sorry at all. “I can’t take the chance.”
It was stupid, how much it hurt, especially considering how low she’d thought her expectations had been. And anyway, even if she did get to see Robson, what if this new objective turned out to be no more satisfying than the first? What if she ended up returning to Texas with a heart even more broken than before, just like Elektra’d said?
Except then she realized it was too late, she’d already opened that particular can of worms and there was no cramming them back inside.
Nodding, her gaze sliding away, she backed up, her arms crossed. “Does he even know my name?”
Her eyes lifted again. “You ever gonna tell him about me?”
“Only if he asks.”
After a moment, Winnie nodded again, hoping to make it back inside before the tears fell.
“So you’ll be leaving in the morning?” she heard behind her.
“I suppose. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s been a long day—”
“Watch out for the electricity, it’s a bit dodgy.”
Winnie turned, thoroughly confused. “Uh, yeah...Tess already told me—”
“And I assume you have a cell phone?”
“Charging even as we speak—”
“Give me your number, then,” Aidan said, digging his own phone out of his pocket.
“You’re on my property, I’m responsible for your welfare. So just give me your number, damn it.”
Shaking her head, Winnie stomped inside, fished a pen out of her purse and scribbled her number on a Burger King napkin from a pit stop in Moriarty, then went back outside and handed it to him.
“Then you better give me yours, too. Just in case a herd of rabid raccoons storms the house during the night.”
She thought maybe his mouth twitched. “505-555-2076.”
She scribbled it on a second napkin, although since she had a mind like flypaper she’d already memorized it. After that they stared each other down for another couple of seconds until Aidan finally opened his door and climbed into his truck.
“Hey,” she called over before he could shut his door.
“I may have made some really, really dumb choices in my life, but something tells me choosing you and June as my baby’s parents wasn’t one of them.”
Then she went inside, thinking, Chew on that, buster.
(c) 2007, 2008 Reprinted with permission of Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.
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