Tara Greer's world is fine the way it is-even if some details of her childhood simply don't add up. Life on the beautiful Virginia coast with her mother and young foster brother are all she needs. What she doesn't need is gorgeous stranger Jack DiMarco's suspicion that she was stolen as a child. Because if he's right, the truth would devastate her family. Steering clear of Jack is the easy answer, right? Wrong! The sexy, compassionate on-the-mend baseball player is everywhere she turnsâ ¦exactly where her heart wants him. But their future seems unlikely when being with Jack means facing a reality that could cost Tara everything.
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While working as a newspaper sportswriter, Darlene Gardner realized she'd rather make up quotes than rely on an athlete to say something interesting. So she quit her job and concentrated on a fiction career that landed her at Harlequin/Silhouette, where she's written for Temptation, Duets and Intimate Moments as well as Superromance. Visit Darlene on the web at www.darlenegardner.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
That white pickup was as conspicuous as the evening sunset over the Chesapeake Bay.
It took its time in coming, too. For the past block, since Tara Greer had crossed the empty street to walk along the sidewalk, the pickup had rolled along at a speed roughly equivalent to her pace.
In ten or fifteen more minutes, children who walked to school from the bordering neighborhood would start appearing. So would the school buses that transported students from the rural areas of the Eastern Shore that fed into the elementary school.
For now, however, Tara was virtually alone.
Tara glanced back over her shoulder, hearing the slow thud of her heartbeat over the rumble of the truck engine. She couldn't tell much about the driver except that he was male and had thick dark hair. The pickup didn't have a front license plate, so it wasn't registered in Virginia.
Even though it was early June, when tourists seeking peace and quiet were starting to show up in the area, something about the pickup seemed off. The Eastern Shore was geographically removed from the rest of Virginia, sandwiched by the Chesapeake and the Atlantic Ocean, seventy miles north to south but only fifteen miles at its widest point. Wawpaney was about three or four miles inland from the bay, a community of a few hundred without even a bed-and-breakfast. Strangers stuck out.
The school was in sight. Tara walked faster down the uneven sidewalk shaded by leafy oak trees and tall pines. It was barely past eight in the morning, but there would be people, safety if the guy tried anything.
The truck drew even with her, slowing down for the space of a few heartbeats before continuing past her. Tara chided herself for being silly. This was Wawpaney, not the mean streets of a big city. The town's Native American name meant daybreak, the most peaceful time of day. Nothing bad happened here.
No sooner did she have the thought than the driver swung the pickup over to the curb and shut off the ignition. The sigh of relief caught in Tara's throat.
The man who hopped out of the truck was tall, lean and probably in his early thirties. He looked normal enough, but so did lots of prison inmates.
Through an opening between the trees, the man was momentarily bathed in sunlight that magnified his appearance. He had a square jaw and a nose that was on the long side, a combination that lent him an air of gravity. Or maybe he looked serious because he wasn't smiling.
If he smiled, he'd be handsome. But if he smiled, she'd be even more freaked out.
She veered off the sidewalk, intending to run to the other side of the street. She gave silent thanks that as a physical education teacher she wore tennis shoes to school.
"Wait! Please!" The man's voice was low pitched and pleasing to the ear. "I just need to ask you something."
Tara froze on the dew-damp grass of the swell between the sidewalk and the street, considering once again that she might have overreacted. She drew in a deep breath of bay-scented air, reminding herself it wasn't like her to be skittish.
The man was walking toward her, getting closer with every step. He wore jeans and a light-colored shirt with the sleeves rolled up, projecting a casual coolness instead of sinister purpose. Probably a tourist who'd lost his way. He got to within a body's length of her.
"Do you need directions somewhere?" she asked.
"No," he replied.
She retreated a step closer to the curb, then stopped and squared her shoulders. She wasn't sure how, but now that she could see the man up close she knew he meant her no harm. Stepping onto the sidewalk, she crossed her arms over her chest. "Then you were following me."
"It's not what you think," he said hurriedly. "I was driving over to the school, hoping to talk to you. And then suddenly, there you were."
She should have been alarmed, but his eyes, a velvety-brown shade, seemed kind. His voice was so low it was almost soothing.
"Why would you want to talk to me?" she asked. "I've never seen you before in my life."
If she had, she'd remember.
"My name's Jack DiMarco. I'm visiting from Kentucky." His accent was soft, evident only in the slight rounding of his vowels. He rubbed a hand over his mouth and shook his head. "I'm not sure how to say this."
"How to say what?"
He opened his mouth, closed it then withdrew a piece of paper from the back pocket of his jeans and unfolded it.
"Maybe this will help you understand," he said, holding the paper out to her.
Tara had a premonition that she didn't want to see whatever was on the paper. She didn't know what had gotten into her this morning. She wasn't normally so anxious. Careful not to touch him, Tara took the paper. On it was the photo image of a young woman with golden-brown hair, a high forehead, wide-set eyes and an oval face with a rounded chin.
Tara's free hand flew to her mouth. "This looks like me."
"I think so, too," the man—Jack—said. "Except for the hair. Yours is more reddish-brown."
It made no sense. Why would this stranger have a drawing of her? She waved the paper at him. "Where did you get this?"
"It's a computer-generated photo done by a forensic artist," he said. "My sister pushed for an updated version of it. She's a private investigator."
Tara caught only the first part of his answer because she was reexamining the photo. Underneath it in large block type was the name Hayley Cooper. The smaller print below the name blurred as she belatedly recalled his last two words. Her chin came up. "You're a private investigator?"
"I'm not," he said. "My sister is. Since I was coming to the Eastern Shore, anyway, she asked me to check out a lead on one of her cases to see if it was worth pursuing."
"A missing-person case."
Tara's shoulders relaxed. She breathed in air that carried the familiar smell of salt water and late-spring blooms. Without reading the rest of the print, she extended the sheet of paper back to him. "There's been a mistake. I'm not Hayley Cooper and I'm not missing."
"You don't understand." He nodded down at the piece of paper. "That's an age progression. It's an approximation of what the missing person would look like today."
Tara's stomach tightened as the tension returned. She remembered a magazine article a few years back about Jaycee Dugard, a missing child who'd been found after being held against her will for eighteen years. The magazine had run Jaycee's current photo and her age-progression one side by side. They'd looked remarkably alike.
"What does this have to do with me?" Tara asked.
"Maybe nothing." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Here's the deal. My sister is investigating the case of a three-year-old who was abducted twenty-eight years ago from a shopping mall in a little town outside Louisville."
"And?" Tara prompted.
His mouth twisted. "Is there any chance you could be her?"
It felt as if all the blood rushed from Tara's head. She fought not to sway. The stranger was watching her carefully, as though she were a specimen under a microscope.
"That's crazy," Tara said.
"You're about the right age," he said. "Hayley would be thirty-one in a few weeks."
"I'm thirty-two." Tara needed time to gather her composure while she assessed how to handle the situation. The next few moments could be crucial. "What led you to me?"
"I'm not exactly sure," he said. "That photo I showed you, my sister made sure it was posted on all the missing-persons websites. She's gotten dozens of tips, too many to physically track down every one herself."
Tara wanted to find out more about the websites, but it was more important to convince the stranger he was wrong about her.
"I've lived in Wawpaney my whole life," Tara said. "I've never even been to the Midwest."
He tilted his head. "Are you sure? Most people don't have memories from their first few years."
Tara had only one, although it had never made any sense. She'd gotten good at banishing the memory, if that were truly what it was. It had been years since she'd awakened abruptly from a deep sleep with her body shaking and tears dampening her cheeks.
"I'm sure I wasn't abducted." She managed to laugh. "The neighbors would have been awfully suspicious if a three-year-old suddenly joined the family."
Before he could respond, she added, "Besides, I've seen baby photos of myself. You have, too, right?"
A corner of his mouth kicked up. He seemed to relax. "I'm from a family of six," he said. "My mom takes so many photos she should have bought stock in Kodak."
"My mother, too." Tara was relieved the hand that still held out the paper to him wasn't shaking. This time he took it.
"Sorry to have bothered you," he said. "My sister warned me the lead probably wouldn't pan out. Most of them go nowhere. But you've gotta admit, that photo looks an awful lot like you."
"I'm sure age progression isn't an exact science." Tara needed to get away from him as soon as she possibly could. "If you'll excuse me, I've got to get to school. Class is starting soon."
"Of course." He seemed about to say more, but she didn't give him a chance, passing by him and continuing on the cracked, narrow sidewalk to Wawpaney Elementary.
She was fortunate that Jack DiMarco wasn't the private investigator in his family. Otherwise, it might not have been so easy to convince him she wasn't the grown-up version of Hayley Cooper. She forced herself to act normally and walk at a measured clip, resisting the urge to glance back to see if he was still studyin...
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Book Description Harlequin, 2012. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0373718039