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Kimberly hasn't seen Brandon in ten years--how could he have kept their child a secret?
Kim's skirt constricted around her hips. Too tight. Almost as if an elastic band had taken over for the dark blue denim, the mini-skirt seemed to shrink. Rachel had talked her into wearing it "to get back into circulation."
When Kimberly returns to baltimore, the last thing she expects her former lover Brandon to tell her is that she has a nine-year-old daughter.
Years before, she'd told him never to contact her again--unless it was a matter of life or death.
Thanks to modern science, Kimberly discovers her own matter of life.
Instead it cut off her circulation.
Her sister nudged Kim to move forward with the line, so she inched up by baby steps. She licked her lips at the smell of buttered popcorn, and tried to decide if a small tub of it would tighten her clothing any more.
The line split into two as they neared the concession counter, and Kim saw two young men checking out her legs. Why had she listened to Rachel, anyway, an old married woman with a kid? She should have worn a suit jacket and long, tailored skirt or slacks-- then she'd be in control, and comfortable. When a woman in a lavender, Polyester pants suit shot Kim a dirty look, probably noticing her sons' reaction to her outfit, Kim turned to stare at the head directly in front of her.
The line moved forward.
From the corner of her eye, Kim saw Rachel tilting her head and mouthing something, but she was behind the boys so Kim refused to look around. She'd forgotten how goofy her sister was-- she'd forgotten a lot about her family while she'd been in New York.
Waiting cinema-goers now filled the lobby, with their chatter filling the air. Kim shifted her weight while the chubby man ahead of her hemmed and hawed over the candy selection. She reached down and tugged at the hem of her skirt, unable to shake the feeling that something was about to go sliding.
Finally, he'd decided on the Snow Caps and Kim was at the smudged glass topped counter. The air conditioning had kicked in, and the glass felt cool as she laid both palms on its smooth surface, leaning closer to read the price list on the wall. She wouldn't put her glasses on until she got into the dark theater, another suggestion of her sister's.
"Buttered popcorn, small, please, and a diet soda." She straightened up as she gave her order to the boy in the paper hat, and began fishing through her postage-stamp sized purse for bills. Rachel had finished and waited for her just to the right, grinning from ear to ear. Watching her, Kim's emergency quarters rolled down the counter, plinking as they plopped in front of a man now reaching for a cardboard tray of nachos.
The cashier yanked the bills from Kim's hand, as they'd froze in mid-payment when she saw the man catching her coins.
He held them out to her, smiling.
Brandon Hughes. Towering over her, dark hair still full and windblown looking, his skin crinkling as the smile reached his eyes. Oh, God, Brandon. Her stomach dropped, the muscles clenching so hard the material around it loosened.
"Can I help the next person please?" Paper-hat boy moved to look behind Kim. She ignored him, noticing vaguely that someone brushed her arm as they tried to order.
"Kimberly," Brandon said, and she reached for the coins he held, jingling between the fingers she remembered as strong, but gentle. Exciting.
Kim put her purchases back on the counter so she could accept the change. Her eyes never left Brandon's stare. She put the coins in her purse with her left hand, and promptly stuck her right hand into the popcorn tub.
Her pulse began its own popping sensation, throbbing, as if she'd already consumed the salty snacks and caffeinated cola. She tore her gaze from his, wiped her hand, and indicated with her head that she was heading toward her sister. And safety.
Rachel waited beside a life size cutout of Harrison Ford. Kim sidestepped a pack of middle school kids, and then a bunch of clingy teenaged sweethearts, leaving a trail of popcorn behind her.
"I see you picked up a little something extra," Rachel said, indicating the man behind Kim. "Hi Brandon."
He nodded, but kept his gaze on Kim. The crowd thinned as customers scattered toward different theater doors.
"I'll go save some seats," Rachel said, as if they'd be alone when she left. Taking Kim's popcorn tub, she headed for the first set of doors.
Kim swallowed, suddenly glad Rachel had goaded her into wearing this outfit and fixing her hair. Although common sense told her to ignore him, she wanted him to think she looked fabulous at the same time. Did he think she was still the same slim blonde she'd been with him? Like she'd been with him, beside, him? Underneath him.
He married someone else, Kim reminded herself. As soon as she left town. She gripped her purse strap. Be cool. "How have you been?" Oh, that was original.
"Good. You look great," he said, looking her over with obvious interest.
She recognized the smoky look that came over his eyes when he liked what he saw. His scrutiny was direct and intense.
She tugged at her hem.
Bad move. He followed the motion. "You're all covered. And very nicely." He glanced back toward the front entrance. "What's it been, ten years now?"
He must be waiting for someone, she thought. A date? Kim pushed hair from her eyes. "Yep. You look good." What an understatement.
Brandon moved to her side, widening his view of the lobby doors. He was taller than she remembered, and just as handsome. Just a few wrinkles hinted he was older. His profile was sculpted with a firm chin and straight, though not small, nose. The bump was still there from when he broke it in high school. The locks on his forehead still had that look of having just been tousled--by his own nervous gesture-- or by a woman.
The lobby had grown quiet. Brandon stood still beside her, holding his nachos and a soda.
"I heard you came back to Baltimore," he said, softly, still watching the doors. "You're missing your movie."
"Oh, yeah." That was it, her brain must have fried. "So are you." Kim took a deep breath and decided to take a chance. "Would you like to go somewhere else and have a cup of coffee? We could catch up." Good, that sounded mature and calm.
He turned to her, partially, still keeping an eye on the entrance. "I'd really like to, but. . ." His voice trailed off when a woman entered, as if on cue. A stunning redhead in a sleek black pants outfit. Silver dripped from her ears, neck and arms.
Brandon juggled his food to wave, catching Kim in the side of her breast with his elbow. She let out a whoosh of breath, feeling her face grow warm. He was still a klutz. She crossed her arms to support herself, the sting disappearing, and she realized she hadn't been hurt in that particular part of her anatomy since. . . well, since New York.
"Oh, God, Kimberly, did I get you?" He forgot his approaching date and set his nachos on a nearby ledge. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. Not a life or death situation." She knew as the words spilled out she'd regret them. He stiffened. "Oh, how could I have forgotten? I'm not supposed to speak to you again unless it's a life or death emergency, right?"
She couldn't get any pinker, she knew. "I'm sorry I said that." By the time the redhead reached them, armed with her own soda and snacks, Kim wished she'd gone with Rachel into the dark cinema. She was pathetic. The chance of speaking with Brandon, even for a few moments, had outweighed the possibilities of being humiliated in public.
"So sorry I'm late. Ready to go in?" The woman sounded sincerely sorry, and Kim decided she couldn't dislike her on looks alone.
"It's okay, I got to talk to an old friend. Kimberly, this is Lori Malone. Lori, Kimberly Duncan. It is still Duncan?" Obviously still irritated, Brandon seemed more curious than hopeful.
Old friend? Is that what she was? "Yes. Nice meeting you," she said, nodding to Lori, and took a breath of buttered air. "I'll see you around," she said to Brandon, and wondered if his elbow had left a bruise where her breast still tingled.
Watch his arms, she wanted to say to Lori, knowing she wouldn't. Let her take care of herself. That's what Kim had had to do.
Brandon watched the rest of Lost in Space starting straight ahead. To his left, Lori enjoyed the action. That was what she had come for--- to review the movie for her paper. The extra ticket he won had made her job a little easier, and got him out of the house.
To his right, four rows ahead, Kimberly sat in silence. Why hadn't he heard she was back? He'd made that up. His heart pounded under his shirt. Ridiculous. Just the shock of seeing her, he told himself, was all he felt. Not that his elbow didn't still burn where it had touched her.
He wadded his nacho tray into a ball. He had plenty to say to her, and not just in some emergency. Funny how he'd never forgotten that last line she'd fed him, about life or death. That blasted career of hers had been so important, she'd left him for it, so why was she back here now? And why did it bother him?
Fingers tightened around his arm, his left arm, as Lori felt his muscles. Nothing subtle about her. "Have you been working out more?" She whispered the words in his ear.
He turned to look at her-- she was beautiful-- and shook his head. "Lori, you know we're not on a date. Quit fooling around." He growled at her with enough force to intimidate most women, but not this one. She winked and turned back to the show. Amazing how the female mind worked. Lori hadn't never even hinted at flirting with him until she'd spotted Kimberly.
Brandon grinned into the dark theater. What a show.
"So what's on the agenda today?" Rachel asked, always annoyingly cheerful in the morning, making Kim feel grumpy in comparison. Actually, she was just tired from a sleepless night of Brandon memories. Rachel flipped an egg over, easily, and indicated with her spatula for Kim to get coffee.
"Help yourself," she said. "Marianne will be down for breakfast any minute."
"Thanks. I could use the caffeine today." Kim poured a green mug full of the aromatic brew.
"Didn't get much rest, huh?" Rachel smiled. "I wonder why." The sarcastic smile didn't fool Kim for a minute.
"It's all your fault, you know." Kim took another sip of coffee, willing it to awaken her senses. "You must have known he'd be there, and you just enjoyed the scene. He won the tickets from your drawing. Coincidence? I think not."
Rachel flipped the eggs onto a brown rimmed stoneware plate and handed it to Kim. She said nothing, as Marianne chose then to bounce into the room. Her brown eyes were brighter than Kim would have thought possible before nine in the morning.
"I have a meeting at ten with my new boss," Kim said. "Sort of an informal way to get things rolling."
"But it's Saturday." Marianne's little face scrunched up at the idea. "You'll miss Scooby Doo."
"So will you, young lady, you promised to come down and help with the toddlers due in at ten thirty." Rachel's statement drew a groan from her daughter.
Kim smiled. "Scooby was always my favorite, too."
"So stay home. You can teach with me," Marianne said, accepting a plate from her mother.
"Imagine if you got transferred to a new school, Marianne. One you'd never seen before. That would be scary, right?" Kim asked the question between sips of coffee.
The girl nodded, stuffing a strip of bacon into her mouth.
"Well, what if your new teacher offered you the chance to stop by on the Saturday before you started, to meet her, and see your new desk, and get used to things?"
"You mean like find out where the bathrooms are?"
"I'd do it. Have a nice time at your new desk, Aunt Kim." Marianne turned to Rachel. "Can I take the rest of this into the family room if I'm really, really neat?"
After permission was granted, Rachel and Kim sat alone at the round table. Rachel held a large blue mug. "Now, before you get started on me, I'll admit, I bought the ticket subscription for the school. I knew someone related to the school won last night's tickets, I just didn't know who. Kind of ironic, huh?"
"I wasn't amused." She swished the end of her coffee in small circles.
"At least you looked good."
"Yeah-- thank goodness for small things. Of course, after that rubber band of a skirt, my hips will never be the same." Kim rose to take her dishes to the sink. "And thank you for letting me stay here, until I find a place. I really do appreciate it."
"We're family," Rachel said. "Um, Kim, could you sit back down here for a minute?"
"What's up? Do you need my room and board payment already?" Kim slung a terry towel over her shoulder, smiling until she saw the look on her sister's face.
"Rachel, what is it?" All the easy naturedness had fled.
"Before you go in today, I need to tell you something."
"Are you sick? You're scaring me, sis."
"Nothing like that. I'm sorry for being so dramatic. Kim, the company you're with is called Financo, right?"
"Well, the company that Brandon has worked for over the past five or so years is also called Financo. The Baltimore branch. He works where you're working. I've known for a while, but you never needed to know when you were stationed in New York. If you've never run into him at a conference or anything, or seen his name in a directory, well, you wouldn't know. That's it."
Kim's breath left her lungs as if she'd been elbowed in the chest again. This was unbelievable. The world could not possibly be this small. "Are you sure it's the same place?"
"His daughter's one of my dance students, and he had to list it on Beth's emergency notification card. Beth sprained her ankle last year, and I had to look him up. When he met us at the E.R., he was frantic until the doctor assured him it was just a sprain. The most upset parent I've ever seen, actually. Then he bought teddy bears for every child he could find on the floor. Just handed them out like candy. But that's beside the point. Several students' parents work at Financo. I'm a little surprised you didn't know, but it's a big place, and you may never run into him, but I thought you should be prepared. More prepared than you were last night."
Kim eyed her sister warily, rubbing her temples. "Jeez, Rachel, is there anything else I should know?" Her mind felt numb, unable to react with emotion. She shut her eyes and rubbed harder, willing the erratic pulse to slow its trampling of blood vessels.
"Are you going over there dressed like that?" Rachel countered with a question of her own, and gestured toward the faded jeans and striped knit shirt Kim wore.
A moment of doubt took hold of Kim, but she shook it off. "Yep. It's Saturday, remember? If I"m going to miss cartoons, I'm wearing blue jeans."
"Good for you," Rachel said, pulling her own oversized tee over her head to reveal a burgundy, wrap front leotard. "I'll be down in the studio warming up for the first class." She stroked her exposed throat. "I think I'm catching a cold, darn it. And recital auditions are next weekend."
"Drink some orange juice and suck on a zinc lozenge," Kim advised, pulling keys and a small plastic bottle from her red leather handbag. "Just let it dissolve slowly under your tongue. They work like magic." She passed the bottle. "I'm off to see my new desk." She grinned at her sister and was out of the kitchen before Rachel could refuse the tablets.
Kim's sneakers squeaked on the polished white floor. Just like the New York building, she noticed, very clean and sophisticated. She flashed her employee identification badge to the duty guard, who was watching cartoons on a portable television behind a large, curved desk.
"You here for a meeting?" he asked, handing her a clipboard to sign in.
"Actually, I've been transferred here. Didn't anyone notify you? Baltimore's my home town." She grinned at him, shaking her head, signed and handed back the clipboard. "Thanks."
He pointed toward a bank of elevators, grinned in return and saluted.
On the fifth floor she found the mortgage department, removed her prescription sunglasses and stuffed them into a hard case she always carried. She found a frosted glass door marked "Loan Production," and pushed through it. The room was a square maze of beige cubicles about four feet high, with a separate, walled office to her left. From there came the soft clacking of a computer keyboard.
Kim rapped softly on the door as she entered, impressed to find a neat and tidy office inside. The huge leather executive chair didn't come close to dwarfing its occupant. She cleared her throat.
"Kimberly," he said, swiveling to face her. "I was just catching up on some correspondence. Glad you could stop by today. The boss is upstairs." The handsome face smiled, but the man stayed seated.
"Brandon." She shook her head. "I knew you worked here, but not exactly where. Don't tell me you're in Production." The world seemed to be closing in on her again. Too small.
"I run this department. We got a memo on you two days ago. Sorry to burst your bubble, but we'll be talking on a regular basis. As managers we work together. That is, if that's the way underwriters still operate in the Big Apple." He sounded bitter now. Why?
Kim felt warm with exasperation. "I've only been back one week, just one week, and you're already driving me nuts. What is it with you?" She demanded the answer as she would from an employee, leaning on the edge of his desk. Her purse plopped down beside her.
"I see you still have that penchant for crimson accessories, including your face when you get mad." He held up his hands. "Okay, I know that was out of line. But I'm not following you or anything, Kimberly. I've been here a long time, and I've put an awful lot of hours in. You've been off in another city working on your career, doing the same. If you're in charge of Underwriting now, and will have the final say on which of my loans get approved, I think I want to start off with an understanding. Can we call a truce?"
Kim closed her eyes for a moment, willing her emotions to be reasonable. His words rang true, and she didn't want to do anything to jeopardize the job she'd worked so hard for. And sacrificed so much for, in New York. She could only hope that Brandon didn't know the real reason she'd been shipped back to Baltimore like a wayward parcel.
When she looked up, he was waiting with a patient expression, one hand supporting his head. She took in his face and hair, as attractive as always, and the fit of his worn jeans over still hard muscle. Not much had changed in ten years, physically, and she had to remind herself his attitudes probably hadn't improved either.
"Truce," she said softly. "And Brandon, I was sorry to hear about your wife."
A look she could only call anguish passed over his face, clouding his features, but disappeared just as quickly as it appeared. Kim drew a deep breath, wondering if she had imagined the expression.
"That was a long time ago, but thank you. I imagine you've heard through the grapevine by now that I have a daughter?" He spoke in a quiet voice, not altering his position in the chair.
She nodded, reminding herself to breathe. He had a daughter, a living memento of his wife. Why it hurt so much to think about now, she couldn't say. "I'm sure she's both a comfort and a constant reminder of her mother."
To her surprise, he laughed. "I guess you're right."
"Rachel didn't seem very surprised to see you last night."
"We've talked a few times over the years, and I've taken in a few of her productions. I'm happy about that. Your family is great, Kimberly. I'd hate to break off all contact with them. You don't mind, do you?" He rolled his chair closer to her, and she could have sworn he looked mischievous.
She paused. What could she say? Yes, I mind, you unfeeling bastard, I don't want you anywhere around me or my sister's family. But a brief memory of being assigned out of her New York office replayed in her mind. She had to make things palatable here, and that meant getting along with not only Brandon but his department. So she'd swallow her pride, repress her hurt and make the best of things. Once she found her own place and settled in, she would start updating her resume.
"It's not my decision to make, but I'm sure Rachel's going to be very busy this fall. Her big recital try-outs are coming up. She's doing 'The Wizard of Oz,' you know. As a ballet."
"Wow. That sounds ambitious." He seemed truly impressed, his eyebrows arching.
"I'll be helping out, when I can. But you know Rachel, the epitome of industriousness."
"And you are sisters," he said, his eyes twinkling. He turned back to the computer screen. "Just give me a minute to save and shut down, and I'll show you around."
"Great. But I've only got an hour or so. I have to run some errands and get back to Rachel's to watch the afternoon classes."
"Teacher in training, huh?" His words were said lightly. "Well don't worry. I have to be someplace after lunch anyway."
Kim bristled at his training comment, but nodded. Did he expect to have lunch with her? She looked at the back of his head, closing down his computer system, wondering about the man who had broken her heart so long ago. Part of her would jump at the chance to spend time with him, and part of her dreaded the thought. She'd just have to find a way to slip out as soon as the tour was over, and she'd met with Roger, and get back to the studio where her emotions could stay on a more even level.
A line of ten girls bent at the knees, dipping deep into plies while their little hands gripped the wooden bar. Kim watched her sister move among the students, straightening a back here and curving an arm there.
Adorable. They were precious. All young girls disciplined to follow their dreams of becoming prima ballerinas. The sweat over their little brows proclaimed they were working hard as did the sound of leather slippers shuffling across wood. The smell of resin hung in the humid air. a rainbow of arms arched toward the mirrored wall, and one caught Kim's eye. At first glance she noticed that the girl's legs were covered by the only pair of black tights in the row, stark in the sea of pink. But the splay of the little girl's fingers reaching, the feet that almost over-arched, the shape of the bottom working beneath the black tights, all looked familiar to Kim. She watched in awe-- it could have been her twenty years before.
"Rond de jambe a terre, four times front, reverse, grand plie, tendu encrois, releve, passe and balance." Rachel followed each regimented drill with words of encouragement and praise. Kim smiled as the girls struggled to remember the instructions. The little girl in black tights stretched her feet, her little muscles flexing. Just like Kim had stretched, in every exercise. Rachel had the girls finish by performing pique turns diagonally across the wood floor.
"Remember, there's a string at the top of your head, attached to the ceiling. Straight backs, let the string pull you up." Parents began to enter the carpeted lobby area, pride flowing from their eyes. When only two girls remained, a man and woman entered. The latter claimed her daughter and hustled her out, mumbling about getting home to make dinner, and the man waited patiently while little-black-tights removed her toe shoes.
Kim watched from her perch on the stairs, observing the man running a hand through his dark hair, barely concealing his smile. It was Brandon, beaming with . . . pride? Affection? Drops of rain had followed him in, had followed all of the parents indoors, so that his daughter sat in puddles on the carpet to gather her belongings. It was him. Adrift in the sea of mothers flowing in, Brandon stood out.
"Beth was very good today," Rachel said, approaching the stragglers.
"Thank you, Miss Rachel," the girl said, grimacing as the satin ribbon snapped at the location of a knot.
"Take it easy on your shoes, hon," Brandon said. "That's the third pair this year. And it's only October."
Kim, partially hidden on the staircase across the studio, bit her lip. Brandon Hughes had come to claim Beth. This was his daughter? She should have made the connection, he'd dropped her enough hints that morning. She had suspected Rachel had more to say to her this morning. a tiny flutter of pain-- envy maybe-- hit her stomach. It wasn't just that long ago she'd dreamed of having his children. Little ballerinas, rosy cheeked and graceful on the dance floor. It was every woman's dream, wasn't it?
"Hello, Kimberly." Brandon had noticed her there on the steps, watching them, lost in her thoughts and longings. She gave a wimpy little wave, her voice missed above Beth's chatter. Rachel grasped the girl's shoulders, while telling Brandon how much she continued to improve and would most likely snag a lead role in the annual recital.
Kim found herself wondering if the girl's mother had danced. Each girl had to audition for a spot in this class, had to possess ability and desire. Or was Beth's talent a fluke, perhaps inherited from another member of Brandon's family? The girl certainly had not inherited her mother's red hair; Beth was a dishwater blonde.
Suddenly Rachel stood in front of her, hands on her slim, burgundy skirted hips. "Well?"
"Sorry, Sis. I wasn't paying attention." She looked to make sure they had left.
"I guess not. You're off in dream land." She lowered her voice. "Or is it memory lane?"
Kim nodded, never able to hide things from her sister. "And it's paved with rocks and boulders." Sighing she rose to head upstairs, to Rachel's home, where her street clothes waited, but Rachel grabbed her arm.
"Are you okay?"
"Why didn't you tell me?" Kim's voice cracked. "That his daughter was in this class?You could have prepared me for this."
Rachel stood straight. " Would it have helped to know?" Compassion mixed with a firmness in her expression.
"No, I'd still be a mess. It shouldn't hurt like this." Kim pulled her arm free and dashed up the steps, through the cellar door and back to the real world. Her heart pounded as she wound through the country kitchen, her feet guiding her without conscious thought. The smallest bedroom was the guest room, Kim's temporary residence. It had been a big fat mistake to come back here, she realized, nothing had changed, but everything had changed. She ripped her leotard down and then her tights, rolling the damp Lycra into balls that she spiraled across the room. A daughter! An adorable little ballerina.
It shouldn't be a surprise. After all, she'd known he'd married Renee, heard they had a daughter, except that until she had seen the girl as a real live person, it had just been theoretical. Words. Facts. Kim yanked up her jeans, catching the lace of her pink panties in the unforgiving zipper. Did Brandon remember her black tights from dance classes and dress his daughter the same way? Or had a salesperson selected them?
A small brunette peered in, pushing the door aside. "Aunt Kim, will you be eating with us tonight?"
Kim's heart melted every time her niece called her 'aunt.' It was the best title she'd ever had. "Thanks, sweetie, but tonight I have a lot of things to do. I have to go out for a while."
"Is it because of Beth's dad?" Her freckled cheeks tilted up, her dark eyebrows raised under the pixie haircut.
"What?" Kim's mouth dried up. What had Rachel said to her?
"Well, I noticed that you got upset when he came to get Beth." Marianne held the doorknob on both sides and leaned back, swinging her little butt from side to side.
"Does your mom let you do that?"
Marianne smiled and kept swinging. The girl was far too sensitive to adults. Kim wondered how to treat the subject of Brandon and Beth, since she wasn't even sure how she felt herself.
"I used to know him, in college. We dated. I'd never met his daughter, so I was a little surprised." Her admission brought a warm glow to her entire face.
Marianne nodded like a wise old sage. "A real shocker, huh? I felt that way when I saw Tommy Tompkins holding Melissa Sue Johnson's hand at the zoo. Were you and Beth's dad an item?"
Kim smiled. "I guess you could say that. But it was all a really long time ago, sweetie, remember I've been living in another city for years. There's no reason why I would've known about Beth."
"But it still feels bad, huh?" She dropped the doorknob and stretched limber arms over her head.
Kim pulled Marianne into her arms for a hug, caressing the girl's short, thick hair. "When did you get so smart?"
"Last year," she said, returning the hug. "So will you stay? Mom's making lasagna."
"Oh, okay," Kim agreed, straightening her blouse. "I could never turn down Rachel's Italian cooking."
"Just one thing you should know, Aunt Kim." Marianne paused with her hand on knob, ready to actually turn it this time. "Beth's coming back. She's spending the night." And she closed the door behind her leaving Kim to contemplate seeing Brandon and his daughter again.
" Robin Bayne has penned a contemporary romance that is witty, moving and fun! Her secondary characters range from quirky to adorable, while hero and heroine, Brandon and Kim have an emotional, highly charged relationship. The wonderfully unique twist on the 'unknown baby' storyline is a delicious surprise that will delight readers."