"What kind did you have?"

Laura busied herself with putting away the suitcases, yet said, "It was small and dark and I shared it with my sisters." She didn't mention that the roof was tin and often leaked right on her side of the bed, too.

"Sisters?"

"I have two, but they are grown and married now," she added. They're younger, too, she thought with a little twinge of envy. She'd come close to getting married, to walking down the aisle with the wrong man. A man who wanted her for her face, her poise and grace, she'd overheard him say to his soon-to-be best man. He wanted his trophy wife for show—his mistress for his bed.

Laura closed her eyes and willed the humiliation away. Paul was the culmination of a life of judgments. Oh, she knew she'd opened herself up to that kind of appraisal when she'd entered beauty contests, but that was for the prize money for college to get off the farm. Yet she had hoped he'd loved her for more than a pretty face, and when the dream shattered, she'd lost more than just her man. She'd lost some of her self-esteem, too. She'd felt like a piece of flesh bought and paid for, since Paul had showered her with everything a woman would want. Everything except his love.

"Maybe you can meet them. My sister Jolene has a daughter a little older than you." When no response came Laura looked up and found Kelly fast asleep, her head nestled on the teddy bear's tummy. Smiling, she went to her, easing her back onto the pillows, removing her shoes and pulling a comforter over her. Kelly released a deep, shuddering sigh that said it had already been a long day for such a little girl.

Laura brushed a kiss to her temple, switched off the lights, then left the room, closing the door. Outside the door she instantly felt his presence and looked at the staircase at the far end of the hall. She could see his legs from the knees down, his hand on the banister.

"Is she all right?"

"Yes, she's exhausted, though, and sleeping now."

"Thank you, Laura."

"You're welcome. She wants to see you."

"You know I can't do that."

"She needs her daddy."

"Laura … please."

Agony, from denying himself and his daughter, laced his voice and drifted to her. In that instant, Laura realized just how lonely and isolated this man was, and how hard it must be for him to have two women in his house when he'd been free to roam and do as he pleased for years before.

"She's feeling alone and frightened. Everything is new to her, and while that might be exciting, she still only wants to see you."

"Well she can't. I won't scare her more. And I don't know the first thing about little girls and raising them. But you do."

She didn't want to argue, not with Kelly so near. "Well, I won't always be here," she said, then crossed the hall to her room, closing the door.

Richard sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. She would be here, until he decided otherwise, and the thought of Laura leaving made him nervous. He stared down the hall at the floor lights and the door to his daughter's room. He didn't want to chance either female seeing him and getting scared, but the need to be near Kelly was overpowering. He strode down the remaining steps and along the hall. He opened Kelly's door and slipped inside, moving to the bed and gazing down at the sleeping child. She looked so peaceful and innocent. And so little.

He reached, fingering a lock of her hair, then unable to resist, he stroked the backs of his fingers across her cheek. Her skin was soft and smooth, cool to the touch. She was beautiful and his chest tightened. He wanted to scoop her in his arms and hold her.

"Daddy?"

Oh, the sound of that nearly brought him to tears.

"Yes, princess, I'm here. Go back to sleep."

Kelly shifted in the bed, and Richard covered her tiny shoulders, his hand lingering.

"Daddy loves you," he whispered.

And in her sleep Kelly patted his hand. He tensed for a second, the scars on his wrist deep, but she was already back asleep.

Not wanting to chance Laura popping in, he considered taking the passageway, but anger won out. This was his house, damn it. He left the room and was nearly to the third-floor staircase when Laura threw open her door and rushed out. He quickened his steps down the hall, deeper into the dark, and he knew that it would take her eyes a second to adjust as she went from the lighted room to the dark.

"Mr. Blackthorne," she called softly.

His senses instantly picked up her fragrance, warm and spicy and driving through to his skin.

"Mr. Blackthorne."

He stopped. "I'm ignoring you. Walking away. Don't you get the picture?"

"Shh." She rushed toward him. "Of course, I'm a grad-gee-ate and all that," she bit back, laying on the southern accent.

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