"I don't think so."
"Oh? Don't you want me simply because I'm easy on the eyes?"
"Dammit, there is a big difference. You have no idea what it's like being hideous."
"No, I don't, but I do know what it's like to be judged because of my looks."
Suddenly Kelly rushed into the dining room, making Laura stop. "Are you talking to my daddy? Is he there? Can I see him? Where is he?" She moved around Laura, and when Laura looked into the kitchen, she knew he was gone.
"Yes, honey, it was him."
Kelly looked up at her with wide, forlorn eyes, the kitten clutched under her chin. "Doesn't he want to see me?" Her lips curled down and tears glossed her blue eyes. Laura's heart wrenched and broke right there. Damn him for doing this to his own daughter. "Yes, honey. He does. But he can't, not right now."
Sadness crept deep into the single word and made Laura's eyes burn. "Soon," she whispered, yet wondered if Richard Blackthorne would ever come out of his cave to be with his little princess.
* * *
Richard had heard the truck, then the doorbell chime, and he wondered why the deliveryman hadn't just left the package on the steps as usual and was now walking around to the rear of his house. Then he understood. Laura. Gossip and rumors in town must be flying over the beauty stuck in the castle house with the ugly beast, he thought with a cynical twist to his lips. He was surprised only one man had come by so far. Richard didn't doubt that Laura Cambridge never hurt for admirers.
But then that's what she'd been complaining of. That men were only interested in her for her looks. Even the man she'd loved. The reason she'd left embassy work. The man who'd cheated on her. Lied to her. And Richard decided this fellow was a complete idiot and not worthy of a woman like Laura Cambridge. She was warm and giving, and deserved a man who appreciated her. He'd seen humiliation in her beautiful green eyes, shame, and an anger that hadn't gone away. How long ago was it? Who was he? For Richard had the urge to bash his face in right now.
Peering down at the yard below, he saw Laura sitting on the picnic table, watching his daughter play on the wooden swing set as she drew something on a child's pad of paper. As the man approached, she set the pad aside and signed for the parcel, then directed him to set it on the back porch steps. But the guy didn't leave. In fact he had the audacity to sit next to Laura. Too close to her, looking at her too intently. Richard ground his teeth when she laughed at something the man said, then gnashed them nearly to powder when she offered him coffee from the thermos beside her. Didn't this boy have anything left to deliver? he wondered, irritated.
Dewey came over, and Richard thought his friend's scowl was enough to send the young man running. But it didn't. Laura poured coffee for Dewey, and although the older man swigged his down quickly and gave the guy a glare, the handsome man, at least five years younger than Laura, didn't budge. Richard thought about hurling the window open and shouting at the guy to get going … back to his own family. He was jealous. Insanely jealous. He stepped back and rubbed his hands over his face.
It didn't seem to matter that he had no right to be jealous of Laura. She wasn't his, only Kelly was, and without Laura he didn't even have that much. He didn't belong. Laura, Dewey, Kelly … they were the family in this house and he was simply a shadow. An echo of a man. God, how had his life come to this?
He'd never thought of himself as a coward, and it went against the grain to be hiding away. Hell, he was doing it for their sakes, though, not his. He didn't want to be the source of nightmares and heart attacks.
A knock sounded, drawing him from his thoughts, and he shifted his gaze from the window to the door behind him. Richard knew it was the maid, Mrs. Coleson. He called out for her to give him a minute, then slipped into the servants' staircase and moved to the second floor. The maid wouldn't be long, since he wasn't a slob. The vacuum echoed in the cavernous house as he wandered the halls, then stopped between Kelly's room and Laura's. He was tempted to slip into Laura's room and look around, but honor squashed that idea flat. He stepped into Kelly's room, making himself busy with checking the structure of the tall princess bed and picking up a few toys. He heard laughter again and went to the window, snapping back the curtain. Kelly was hopping around as her kitten tried to pounce on her sneaker laces. He gripped the curtain fabric in one fist, crumpling the material. He'd give anything to be able to be there with Kelly, laughing. Smiling at Laura. Feeling the sun on his face. Suddenly, Laura twisted, her gaze shooting to where he stood at the window.