A cynical divorce attorney. A believer in happily ever after. What could possibly go wrong?

Robert Carter survived an abusive upbringing from an alcoholic father to become founder and CEO of a globally renowned, billion-dollar medical supply company. Now, he is ready to settle down and raise a houseful of kids to prove to himself that he can be a better father than the one who raised him. But the one woman he desires to make his dreams come true has other ideas about love and marriage.

As a little girl, Yasmine Reynolds fantasized about raising a family with Robert, her best friend’s older brother. Now all grown up, and in-demand as one of Boston’s best divorce attorneys money can buy, Yasmine realizes that love and marriage isn’t the bed of roses she imagined it would be. She becomes even more cynical when a relationship she thought strong enough to weather any storm unravels before her eyes.

Is Robert’s unwavering love enough to convince Yasmine that Happily Ever After does exist?

Loving Yasmine: Robert & Yasmine (Beyond Granite Falls Book 1)

Chapter 1

“You want to stay over tonight?” Yasmine gazed up at Robert as he stood hesitantly at the door of her condo with one foot in and one out.

“I don’t know, Yas.” He set her suitcase on the floor and dropped her keys into a bamboo bowl on a table near the door. “Should I?” he asked, his entrancing chocolate eyes level under dark bushy brows.

Untangling her gaze from his, Yasmine removed her Valentino crossbody bag and placed it on the chair next to the table. As much as she would love to rip off their clothes and writhe under Robert for an hour or so before falling asleep snuggled up to his hard muscular body, she wasn’t one to beg—not even for the best sex of her life.

Lifting her gaze again, she watched his mouth tighten with irritation as he stared down at her. Her desire to reach up and kiss the softness back into his smooth sexy lips was strong, but Yasmine squelched it. She was so good at controlling her desires—sometimes. “Can you close my door? All my cool air is escaping to the outside.”

“You want me on the inside or the outside of your door when it’s closed?”

Yasmine shrugged indifferently. She’d already posed the question, and that was all the invitation he was getting tonight. “That’s up to you, Robert. I’ll be upstairs while you decide.” Before he could reply, she wheeled her suitcase toward the flight of stairs that led to the second floor.

“Let me help you with that,” Robert said behind her, his footsteps following in the wake of his deep baritone voice.

“No, I got it.”

“Why do you always have to be so—so…independent, Yas? Let a brother help you once in a while.”

Because that’s how a lot of women get lassoed.

Yasmine lifted the suitcase and ascended the steps as quickly as she could, carrying about thirty pounds of clothes, shoes, handbags, makeup, and toiletries with her. A smile briefly braced her lips as she felt the heat from Robert’s stare burning a hole in the back of her bare legs and thighs left visible from her white shorts. She put a little more effort into wriggling her buttocks under the cotton material.

She knew he hated her independence and wished she would lean on him more, but that wasn’t Yasmine’s style anymore. Like a lot of women, she used to think that she needed a man to perform certain tasks and solve certain problems. She’d kicked that philosophy to the curb when she became a divorce attorney, and realized how one woman after another got sucked into a relationship she shouldn’t have been in, merely because a man flexed his muscles at her.

After her first few cases, Irina Dunn’s famous catchphrase, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” had become Yasmine’s mantra. When she needed a plumber, she called a professional, paid him, and sent him on his way. No expectations. No obligations. When she wanted a man and his sweet loving, she called Robert. They gave and they took equally, enjoying each other to the max.

As she walked down the hall, Yasmine heard Robert’s footsteps retreating across the floor, followed by the firm thud of her door closing behind him. So he decided to go home to his Beacon Hill townhouse after all.

She flipped a switch as she entered her master suite, and blinked as all thirty bulbs from the crystal chandelier hanging over her bed flooded the bedroom with light—too much light. With a sigh, she dimmed the bulbs, placed her suitcase on the luggage stand, and unzipped it. As she proceeded to unpack, she heard the engine of Robert’s silver Ferrari roar to life.

He’d been moody on the ride back from Granite Falls—a bustling little town in the foothills of the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire—where they’d spent the last three days. Yesterday, they’d attended the most magnificent wedding she’d ever witnessed in real life, or even seen on TV. Yasmine hadn’t even imagined weddings could be so grandiose.

Four billionaire friends and their wives had renewed their vows of love and commitment to each other and their families. Michelle Carter—Yasmine’s best friend since childhood, and Robert’s younger sister—was one of the bride wives.

Yesterday, Robert had given his sister away for the second time to Dr. Erik LaCrosse. Yasmine had had the pleasure of being Michelle’s matron of honor at her first wedding four years ago, but yesterday she’d sat at the front of the church among the honored guests.

Robert, Michelle, and Yasmine had all grown up together in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Manchester, New Hampshire, but they’d all made it out of the hood to a more affluent lifestyle.

Eighteen years ago when Yasmine was eleven, Robert had packed up twelve-year-old Michelle and rented an apartment in a better area of town to get her away from their abusive alcoholic father. Although they weren’t living next door to each other, she and Michelle were able to attend the same middle and high schools, graduate together, and maintain their BFF relationship.

Robert never returned to that neighborhood, but a series of unfortunate events that had almost totally destroyed Michelle had sent her back to live with Yasmine for a while. She’d eventually left it for good four year ago when she married the sexy, widower, billionaire doctor, Erik LaCrosse, father of her charge when she worked as a nanny in the LaCrosses’ Amherst home. And last but not least, Yasmine had said goodbye to their rundown neighborhood, three years ago.

It had taken Yasmine a bit longer to leave her origins because unlike Robert and Michelle, she still had family ties in Manchester: her parents, Luke and Marie Reynolds, her brother, Luke Jr., her sister, Naomi, Naomi’s husband, Felix, and Yasmine’s thirteen-year-old nephew, Peter—Naomi and Felix’s son—on whom she shamelessly doted.

And besides, she hadn’t had the fortune of meeting, falling in love with, and then marrying a billionaire. She’d had to work hard and fight for every little bit of luxury she now enjoyed—mainly her high-end, ocean-view, three-bedroom condo in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and her little red Jaguar F-type.

Not that Robert and Michelle hadn’t worked hard as well. Robert had been working since he was ten years old to keep him and Michelle from starving when their worthless father continuously neglected and abused them. Robert had singlehandedly put himself through Harvard School of Dental Medicine, graduated top of his class, and established Carter Orthodontics that eventually expanded into the very prosperous Carter, Obryan & Levitt Orthodontics. Robert was one of the best dentists in New England with a clientele that included the wealthiest and most influential people in Boston and the surrounding areas.

He recently became a self-made billionaire through Carter Dental, a company that invented and manufactured dental instruments both domestically and globally. Yasmine was very proud of his accomplishments. As a matter of fact, he had been her inspiration to make something of herself. She’d also admired the way he took care of his little sister, even when he was just a kid himself. He’d had to grow up fast.

As for Michelle, even though she’d married her billionaire soul mate, she was a #1 New York Times bestselling author many times over, and a multimillionaire in her own rights from the sales of her books—stories she’d written about the kids from their old neighborhood, kids she used to mentor, and was still mentoring up to this day—many of whom had attended the wedding yesterday.

Those little rascals—Yasmine’s nephew, Peter, included—probably thought they were stuck in a dream during their three-day stay at Hotel Andreas, one of the best hotels in the world, eating cuisine they couldn’t pronounce much less spell, pampered by private caretakers, and being chauffeured around in tinted limousines. That was Michelle. Advocate for the underdog. No matter how rich and famous she got, the girl would never forget where she came from, or those she’d left behind.

Yasmine swallowed back a lump as she thought of her oldest and best friend who now lived three hours north of Boston, and who had since made three new best friends—Kaya, Shaina, and Tashi—wives of Erik’s billionaire buddies, Bryce Fontaine, Massimo Andretti, and Adamo Andreas. They were all wonderful, down-to-earth women whom Yasmine had met and, God help her, liked a lot.

But Yasmine missed her Mich something terrible.

With her unpacking complete, Yasmine walked into her en suite and began removing her makeup. If she were to be honest with herself, she’d have to admit that she was jealous of Michelle’s new friends. Not only did the billionaire wives have a lot in common with each other, including hot, handsome husbands, adorable children, and fast, expensive sports cars, but they all lived within a ten-minute drive of each other and saw one another almost daily, while Yasmine was lucky if she saw her best friend four times a year.

They talked on the phone frequently, but it was never the same. It would never be like it used to be when she and Michelle lived next door to each other in Manchester, or even when Michelle lived with her while she was going through the most difficult time of her life. Yasmine had known for sure that things between them were changing the night Michelle had invited her and Robert to dinner at the house in Amherst, five years ago.

Nobody, not even Yasmine and Robert, had known at the time that Michelle and Erik had secretly married, until some stinky shit had hit the fan months later and ripped them apart. Paradoxically, while Michelle’s life was on a downward spiral, Yasmine’s was flourishing, and as much as she’d longed to share her joy with her best friend, she hadn’t. How could she, when her new love interest was Robert? It would have been cruel to flaunt her own happiness in Michelle’s face while her best friend’s heart was broken up over Erik.

Then, just when Yasmine was about to share her joy, fate threw her a curve ball, turning her own life upside down, forcing her to make some fast and hard decisions about her future. Those decisions, regrettably so, were now Yasmine’s deepest, darkest secrets.

Four years later, Yasmine still didn’t know if she’d ever confide in Michelle. It might destroy their friendship. Plus, Michelle might feel compelled to tell her brother, which could inadvertently bring Yasmine’s relationship with Robert to the ultimate end. She couldn’t risk losing her friendship with Michelle, or the love Yasmine and Robert had for each other. She knew she’d have to tell him sometime, but that sometime should be at her own choosing.

Expelling a deep breath, Yasmine pinned up her hair, dropped her clothes on the bathroom floor, and stepped into her shower stall. She squeezed her lids together and turned her face toward the warm sprays as tears stung her eyes. She should know better than to dwell on her dark secret, especially after spending so much time with Robert—a man who loved kids, and who’d been voicing his desires to have a family ever since his sister had gotten married and begun popping out babies one after the other.

Robert was always excited about visiting Granite Falls, mainly to spend time with his sister’s children—twelve-year-old Precious, four-year-old Erik Jr., three-year-old Tiffany, and seven-month-old Fiona. The kids were always equally excited to see their Uncle Robert, who had no qualms about getting down on the floor or rolling around in the grass with them. The experience of watching them interact always filled Yasmine with conflicting emotions.

Yasmine had been crushing on Robert ever since she was a little girl. She’d dreamed of marrying him and living Happily Ever After in a condo in the north end of Manchester—where the rich people lived. She’d admitted her feelings when she turned fifteen. He’d said she was just a kid and too young to know anything about love. He’d broken her teenage heart, and to hide her hurt, Yasmine had started making fun of his arrogance, calling him boring and a stuffed-shirt, and in turn, he’d called her impertinent and a sassy mouth.

Yasmine smiled at the memories. They used to make Michelle so mad with the name-calling. But when push came to shove, she could always depend on Robert to be there for her, even more than her own brother. After Michelle graduated high school, Robert moved to Boston to start his dental practice, and Yasmine began seeing him less and less. Soon years passed without any contact, until the night of Michelle and Erik’s dinner party in Amherst.

The minute she saw him, Yasmine’s heart had begun to pound like a jungle drum that could be heard for miles, and she’d begun to quiver inside. And to cover up her reaction to seeing him, Yasmine had done what she always did to hide her feelings: attack his rigid personality.

By the end of the night, neither one of them could resist the strong vibes between them. Robert had spent that night and the next two at her apartment in Manchester, and they’d stayed in bed all weekend, living off of passion, pizza, and water. They’d been hooked on each other since then.

But skeptical Yasmine knew that hot sex, especially hot sex in a new relationship, wasn’t enough to build anything on. Jeremy, her first boyfriend, had proven that to her when he too had broken her heart.

Yasmine had given Robert a second chance, then just as she’d begun to feel hopeful about a future with him, he’d discovered the ugly truth about the man he’d called Dad for most of his life. It was a difficult and painful time for him as he tried to reevaluate himself as a son, a brother, and a man. But instead of turning to her for comfort and moral support, he’d pulled away at a time when she needed him most.

How could she trust him with her most precious commodity when he’d rejected her twice? How could she believe in love and marriage, and Happily Ever After when her career as a divorce attorney brought her into daily contact with couples who were once in love, but who eventually reached the stage where they ripped each other apart over silverware and chandeliers?

To avoid that kind of turmoil and disappointment in her life, Yasmine had conditioned herself to believe in here and now. And right now, she wished Rob was here.

Yasmine turned off the shower, stepped out of the stall, and wrapped a fluffy towel around her body. It was going to be a lonely night, but at least she had the erotic memories of making love with Rob before they left Granite Falls that afternoon. Those memories would have to suffice until they saw each other again—hopefully tomorrow after he’d had time to cool down and miss her.

In the meantime, she had King George to help her cope with her Robert withdrawal. King George never gave her any grief about anything. He just did his damn job, got out, and left her alone until she summoned him again.

As Yasmine walked into her bedroom and headed for the bureau, she swore that vibrating dildo enjoyed her body just as much as Robert did. She might have to change his name to Sir Rob or Sir Robert. Whichever. One of them.

Chapter 2

It was a beautiful August night and the sound of soft jazz filtering through the car stereo coupled with the moonlight reflecting off the ocean had Robert in a highly amorous mood as he sat in his Ferrari—still parked in Yasmine’s driveway—staring up at the window to her bedroom.

He leaned his head against the headrest and tapped his fingers against the steering wheel, vacillating on whether or not to go home or go back inside. He’d left her house forty-five minutes ago, determined to put some physical distance between them, but five minutes after he’d started his engine, he’d turned it off when he couldn’t make himself drive away.

That little wisp of a woman had a hold on him like no one else in this world. He loved her so damned much, his heart hurt every time he thought of her, saw her, heard her voice, and when he touched her, God, his fingertips sizzled from the electricity between them. Making love with her was like swimming through a sea of hot thick honey. She was that sweet and addictive.

Robert groaned and adjusted his position as he felt his cock begin to tighten and strain against his cargo shorts. They’d made love just a few hours ago, yet he yearned for her as if they hadn’t seen each other in weeks. His addiction had led him to propose to her twice, and she’d turned him down twice for two different reasons.

Three years had passed, and he hadn’t asked her the third time because he knew that when and if he popped the question again, it would be the last time—whether or not she accepted. A smart man would probably have said to hell with her and moved on, but Robert wasn’t smart. He was a fool in love.

Although Yas hadn’t said it—except for that one time—he knew she loved him. He saw it in her eyes, heard it in her voice, and felt it in her tremor every time he touched her. It would be nice if, every once in a while, she would act as if she needed him.

A man needed to feel like a man in areas of a woman’s life other than the bedroom. A man needed his ego stroked. Having his ego stroked was just as important to him as having his cock stroked—and Yasmine was the best cock-stroker he’d ever known—a fact he’d discovered when she was way too young to be doing the kinds of things grown men and women did with each other. But liberal Yasmine hadn’t thought so.

Robert grimaced as he recalled one particular hot summer night when she’d spent the weekend at his and Michelle’s apartment. He’d never taken any of his girlfriends to the home he’d made for him and Michelle, and Michelle was not allowed to have any boys there. As a precaution against potential false accusations of rape and molestation on his part, Yasmine—whom they both knew they could trust—was the only friend who was allowed to sleep over.

Robert’s trust was breached that weekend when in the middle of the night, fifteen-year-old Little Miss Yasmine left the one bedroom that Michelle occupied, crept into the living room, and crawled in beside him on the sofa bed where he slept. Robert had been awakened to her warm, near-naked body curled around him, her hand caressing his junk through his boxers, her wet kisses on his lips, and her tantalizing whispers in his ears—telling him that she loved him, and wanted him to be her first and only lover.

He was twenty-one at the time, and horny as a grumpy toad since his then college girlfriend had gone back to Oregon for the summer. Somehow, he’d found the strength and the morals to say No to Yasmine’s awkward attempts to seduce him. He’d pushed her roughly away, and scolded her for behaving recklessly, just as sternly as he would have scolded Michelle if he’d ever found out she’d pulled such a brazen stunt with a boy her age, much less a grown man.

Yasmine had run back to the bedroom in tears, probably from a mixture of embarrassment and rejection. He knew he’d crushed her ego, and hopefully her infatuation with him, but he couldn’t risk her fantasizing about him in any way, shape, or form, or hoping he’d change his mind about making love to her.

She was a minor, not to mention his little sister’s best friend, and at that time of his life, Robert’s main priority was looking after Michelle, making sure she made it into adulthood without adding to the scars—both emotionally and physically—that their father had already inflicted on her. He would have been of no use to her if he’d been thrown into jail for statutory rape, or had been put six feet under if Mr. Reynolds had gotten to him first.

He would have lost his integrity and his sister’s respect, which were far more essential to him than a few minutes of awkward sexual pleasure with an underage virgin. He’d never told Michelle about that night, and he doubted Yasmine ever had either. For his sister’s sake, instead of banning Yas from sleeping over again, he’d made her swear that she would never again pull such a stupid stunt with him or any other man. She’d kept her promise—well, to him at least.

That night, their relationship had changed from warm and amicable to almost hostile. It was as if they were both trying too hard not to like each other. Knowing where even the mere thought of his attraction to her could lead, he’d hidden his true feelings by pretending to be unfriendly.

Robert now wondered if Yasmine was punishing him for breaking her teenage heart. He knew her; she didn’t forgive easily. Or could it be that her fear of commitment was directly related to her successful career as a divorce lawyer at Hayward & Harley Law? After all, she dealt with failed marriages on a daily basis—spouses whose love for each other had turned into contempt. Maybe it was a combination of both.

Yasmine had initially been interested in criminal law, but she switched to family law after Michelle’s first and secret marriage to Erik fell apart, and Michelle had ended up living with Yasmine at her apartment in Manchester. That marriage and the ensuing breakup were both a blessing and a curse for Robert. A blessing, because it was Erik and Michelle’s dinner invitation that had brought him and Yasmine together again. A curse because their breakup was the catalyst that had changed the course of Yasmine’s career, and possibly turned her off from believing in Happily Ever After.

Prior to that night in Amherst, Robert hadn’t seen her in years, but when he’d walked into the living room and had seen her sitting there, damn tantalizing in her little black dress, his heart had stopped beating for countless seconds, and the rush of feelings he’d locked away since the night she’d tried to seduce him had come flooding to the surface of his being.

He’d been enchanted with her sexy smile, her glowing smooth caramel complexion, her compelling chestnut brown eyes under dark sweeping lashes, and her rosy lips that made his mouth water. His little Yas had grown up into a gorgeous desirable woman with the tempting body of a goddess. All during dinner, Rob had done nothing but fantasize about stripping her naked and spreading her out under him.

Fortunately for him, those had been Yasmine’s thoughts, too.

When they left Amherst, they’d broken every speed limit racing to her apartment in Manchester, where they’d spent the next three days discovering and devouring each other over and over again. Robert had never met a woman as flexible as Yasmine. They’d made love in positions he’d only fantasized about. Up to that point, that night had been the most memorable of Robert’s life. He’d found his groove and he’d sworn never to lose it. His only regret was that he wasn’t her first and only lover.

Robert sighed as he thought of the flip side of the coin—the collapse of his sister’s secret marriage. Yasmine had been so mad at Erik for hurting Michelle that she’d wanted to take him for everything he owned, including his child, and give it all to Michelle. Her best friend’s heartache had transformed Yasmine into an advocate for women who’d married into wealth, and whose husbands tried to stick it to them in divorce court.

Not that Erik had tried to railroad Michelle or anything like that. Michelle had placed herself in a very sticky situation by lying to Erik and hiding secrets from him. Although Robert’s heart had broken over his sister’s pain, he understood Erik’s feelings. You can’t build a relationship, much less a marriage, on lies and secrets. They’d found their way back to each other, and one of the happiest days of Robert’s life happened four years ago when he gave away his sister to Erik in a public wedding at their lakeside home in Granite Falls.

Unfortunately for Robert, while Michelle and Erik went on to revel blissfully in their Happily Ever After, his and Yasmine’s relationship had taken a downward turn when she rejected his first proposal.

At that painfully embarrassing memory, Robert tapped one hand against his steering wheel, as the first floor of Yasmine’s condo and eventually her bedroom plunged into darkness. His other hand hovered over the ignition button of his Ferrari. Should he go or should he stay?

He started as his cell phone rang. Recognizing the ring as Lani Obryan’s, one of the two associates he’d brought into his practice, he reached over to the driver’s seat and tapped the “phone” and “speaker” icons. “Hey, Lani.”

“Hey, Rob. Are you back in Boston?”

Lani wasn’t one to beat around the bush. Robert rubbed at the muscles in the sides of his neck. “Yeah. We’re back.”

“I watched a replay of the wedding on TV last night, but I’m sure it was nothing compared to being there in person. You looked very handsome, by the way.” She chuckled.

“Thanks, Lani. It was fabulous. Beautiful. Breathtaking.” A smile split his lips as he recalled the joy of walking his sister down the aisle and giving her to Erik for the second time. Michelle was happy. That’s all he’d ever wanted for her. He’d sworn to protect and look after her since the day their father brought her home from the hospital without their mom, who’d died giving birth to her baby girl.

Robert had been only five years old, but after listening to his baby sister cry for hours on her first night home while their drunk father slept, he knew that if he himself didn’t take care of her, she would have died. All his hard work had paid off. His little sister was a beautiful, intelligent, and kindhearted young woman, a brilliant writer, and a loving and dedicated mother and wife. She’d already accomplished so much in life, much more than he could have ever dreamed for her. She’d exceeded his biggest hopes. He was proud of her.

“Are you on the hill?”

Lani’s voice cut into his thoughts. He blinked at the mist in his eyes and cleared the frog from his throat. “No. I’m—I’m at Yasmine’s,” he said deliberately.

“Oh.”

Robert wasn’t surprised at her cool response. He’d met Lani during his college senior year. She was a transfer junior, smart and attractive, and they’d quickly begun a friends-with-benefits relationship. When he graduated, they parted as friends, but kept in touch. A year later, when she graduated, he’d asked her to join his practice. Initially, for professional reasons, they’d agreed not to resume their sexual relationship, but as the months and then years slipped by and they both went in and out of relationships, they’d begun flirting with each other, and had one let’s-see-where-this-might-lead date a week before Michelle’s dinner party.

It was possible that if he and Yasmine hadn’t hooked up that night, he and Lani might now be in a very serious relationship, perhaps even married, with one kid, at least. But as fate would have it, Lani met John a year after he and Yas began seeing each other. She was now a happily married wife, and mother of a ten-month old baby girl.

“Do you have a moment to talk?” Lani cut into his reverie again.

Robert shifted in his seat and took a quick glance toward Yasmine’s house. “Sure. What’s on your mind?”

“I checked your schedule and noticed that you’re free until eleven thirty tomorrow.”

“Right.”

“I was wondering if you could take my first two clients in the morning. I have to take Colleen to her pediatrician.”

“Is she ill?” he asked of his goddaughter.

“She’s been battling a cold for the past few days. I just need her doctor to look at her, make sure she doesn’t have an infection or anything serious.”

“I get it. Family comes first, especially the little ones. Besides, you covered for me last week while I was up north. What time are your appointments?”

She sighed. “You’re gonna hate me.”

“Just give it to me.”

“I have a brace removal at seven.”

Robert groaned. “Seven?”

“I know. I know. Sorry. She has to catch a ten o’clock flight out of Logan to the west coast for a family wedding.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. When’s the next one?”

“I have a consultation for a possible implant at ten. It shouldn’t take too long and should give you enough time to make your first appointment. I would have asked Vaughn, but he’s booked solid from eight.”

“No problem.”

“I can take one of your later appointments though.”

“No, you—” He stopped. He needed to see his shrink. “As a matter of fact, I would appreciate that.”

“Okay, then it’s settled. “I’ll email you the files in a minute.” She paused. “I hope getting out of bed that early doesn’t cause a problem for you and Yasmine.”

It won’t, since I won’t be in her bed. His cock throbbed in protest.

Robert pulled his seat into an upright position, pushed the red ignition button, and listened to his Ferrari’s engine roar to life. “She understands,” he said, as he put the car into reverse.

“Great. Thanks a lot, Rob. And I’ll see you around noon tomorrow.”

“Night, Lani. Give my regards to John, and a get-well-soon hug to Colleen. Tell her that her godfather loves her and sends her kisses.”

“Will do. Bye. Oh, and give my regards to Yasmine. Tell her that she looked absolutely lovely in that white lace dress,” she added and then immediately ended her call.

Sure, Robert thought of her patronizing comment about Yasmine looking lovely in a white dress. Lani had helped him pick out the first engagement ring, so she knew all about Yasmine’s rejection, and although she had never openly said it, he knew that like Michelle, Lani didn’t appreciate Yasmine stringing him along. Michelle, on the other hand, freely and frequently shared her opinions with both of them, as recently as last week. Michelle had even hinted that perhaps he should start dating other women, or give her an ultimatum. That way, he’d know once and for all if Yasmine really wanted him. He and Yasmine had done ultimatum, and they always found themselves back in each other’s arms and beds.

As he backed out of Yasmine’s driveway, Robert wondered what his life would be like if he hadn’t hooked up with Yasmine in Amherst that night. Would he have married Lani or some other woman? Would he be happy, or would he and his hypothetical wife be staring angrily at each other across a table with their individual attorneys by their sides? Would he have hired Yasmine to represent him?

Robert didn’t know. Once thing he was sure of: from the moment he had his first taste of Yasmine, he knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would never be satisfied with any other woman. Back when he was taking care of Michelle, he’d promised to wait until she was married and settled before he got serious with any woman. There was nothing holding him to that oath anymore. He knew women who were willing to commit and give him the children he wanted, but Yasmine Reynolds was his soul mate. He’d known since that night in Amherst, maybe even before then, like the night she’d crawled into his bed, thirteen years ago.

Lord, he’d been tempted, so tempted, not just physically. He’d needed an emotional connection with someone other than his sister. Someone who knew and understood the hurts and the pain inflicted upon him by his father. Yasmine was that someone. Other than Michelle, she had been the one constant in his life. Back then, her perception of love was pure and innocent, albeit premature. Now it was stained with doubts, imperfections, and fears.

As he blended into the Sunday afternoon traffic on Chelsea Street, Robert wondered if his fantasy of having a family with Yasmine Reynolds was an impossible dream.

Chapter 3

“You’re rather quiet tonight, Robert. You usually have a lot to say after visiting your sister.”

Robert pulled his gaze from the tree branches bobbing in the wind outside the window and brought it back inside his therapist’s Dorchester office.

Dr. Doris West, a stout woman with an ultra-pale complexion, a rectangular face, and a square, somewhat masculine-looking chin, stared at him from a white wicker chair. Her hair was a cobweb of silvery gold that made her look much older than her fifty-something years. Robert supposed taking on the burdens of the constant stream of broken patients who flocked to her door had robbed her of her youthfulness.

She adjusted the spectacles on her high-bridged nose, brushed back thin bangs of hair from her forehead, and squinted her hazel eyes at him. “What was different this time, Robert?” she asked in a voice, soft and prodding like an adult would use on a distracted child.

“Weddings make me sentimental.”

She chuckled softly and shifted on the chair. “They have that effect on me, too.”

Robert leaned back into the sofa and studied the labyrinth of deep wrinkles that had taken up permanent residence on her face. He’d started seeing Dr. West four years ago, a year after he’d first discovered that Timmy Gleason, the man who’d raised him and Michelle, was not their biological father, but a homeless imposter who’d stabbed their real father, Dwight Carter, to death in a back ally in Richmond, Virginia, where his family had once lived.

Robert was a malleable four-year-old when the murder occurred, so it was easy for him to believe the fabricated story his mother had drilled into his head the night she’d returned to their Church Hill apartment with a strange man—a man he clearly knew wasn’t his father, but whom he’d accepted as such from that night forward.

Through hypnosis, Dr. West had taken him back to his pre-Timmy Gleason years and helped him awaken the memories that had been suppressed for decades. Before long, his personal memory tract began to come back into focus, and he could hear and see his real father—and recall the woody smell of Old Spice tainted with the smell of motor oil on his skin. He’d begun recalling specific events, pleasant time spent with his parents, laughing and playing together as a family. One recurring memory was sitting on his mother’s lap at the kitchen table while his father fixed their toaster oven, tinkered with the handle of their fridge, or fixed the hinges on a drawer that had fallen apart. Robert loved to burrow his nose against her neck and breathe in her cocoa butter and lavender scent. They used to be happy. So happy…

Robert smiled as he remembered visiting the garage where his father worked as a mechanic. He used to look forward to hanging out with his dad on weekends while his mother worked as a waitress in a local diner.

“I would never want to be a mechanic,” Robert had said to his father, who’d been working under the hood of an old pickup truck.

“Why?”

“Because my hands would get greasy and dirty and Mommy would have to clean under my nails with a toothpick, like she cleans yours. That would hurt.”

His father had chuckled. “As long as your work is honest and you enjoy it, it doesn’t matter what you do, my son. I love working on old engines because I love the sound of them roaring back to life. It gives me satisfaction that I brought something back from the dead. What do you want to do when you grow up, my little Robert?”

“I don’t know, Daddy. Maybe I’ll be a fireman.”

“Why a fireman?”

“’Cause I like big red trucks.”

His father had dropped his greasy rag on the engine and straightened up like a giant. “No, Robert,” he’d said, wagging a finger at him. “You should always know why you want to do something. If you know why you want to do something, you’ll feel fulfilled as you do it. If you’re not certain why you’re doing it, it won’t bring you satisfaction.”

He’d returned to working on the engine for a few minutes, and then paused to glance at Robert again. “That goes for love as much as it goes for work, Robbie. I know you’re too young to understand, but I’m going to say it anyway. You must know why you love one woman above all others, why you want to marry her, and make a family with her. I know why I wanted to marry your mother.”

“Why, Daddy?”

His father had dropped his rag again, came over to the bench where Robert was sitting, touched his greasy finger to Robert’s nose, and kissed him warmly on his forehead. “Because she’s beautiful, strong, loyal, kind, and loving,” he’d said, his black eyes smiling as he stared into Robert’s brown ones. “She has a big heart and she makes me happy. But above all, I knew she would give me a sweet little boy just like you. And soon she will give me a—”

“Robert.”

Robert jumped at Dr. West’s voice. He shook his head, blinked away the pleasant memories, and then frowned as he realized that he was lying on his back on the sofa. When had he become so comfortable and assumed the proverbial position in his counselor’s office? He pushed to a sitting position. “Did you just hypnotize me?” he asked.

She wrote something on the pad on her lap. “You know I will never do that without your permission, Robert. You just zoned out. I’ve been patiently waiting for you to come back.” She took a quick glance at the clock on the table beside her chair. “I would have allowed you to remain in your happy place, but I do have another client in fifteen minutes.”

Robert was moved by the smile that flitted up her face to her eyes. She always referred to her patients as clients. “I guess this was a wasted trip?” He rubbed at the muscles in his neck.

“I won’t say that. Maybe you just needed to come here to relax.”

Yeah right. He could have gotten a full body massage, a pedicure, a manicure, and a fancy dinner for a lot less than what he was paying to sit on Dr. West’s sofa and zone out.

“What brought you here tonight?” she asked as if she didn’t know.

He always saw her immediately following his trips to Granite Falls when his internal dilemma about Yasmine was at its highest peak. Tonight was no different, although he’d been hoping not to see Dr. West at all.

Yasmine had been overly affectionate in Granite Falls, especially when they were in the company of his sister and their friends, giving him hope that she’d been infected with the love and commitment bug. She’d looked stunning at the wedding, and had caught the attention of many eligible bachelors who’d asked her to dance at the reception. Robert had cut in on every one of those dances. And Yasmine had smiled her wickedly teasing smile every time he pulled her out of the arms of another man.

After Michelle and the gang left for their honeymoon, he and Yasmine had hightailed it back to the LaCrosse mansion and had made love into the night and early the next morning. Robert trembled at the steamy memories, but just as quickly his body tensed in frustration.

On their ride back to Boston yesterday, he’d tried to engage Yasmine in conversation about the wedding, the kids, and how happy the couples were in their marriages, but she’d changed the subject every time, until he’d just given up in defeat. If she’d only asked him nicely to stay last night he would have, but she had to go and make it seem as if she didn’t care one way or the other. That had pissed him off.

Robert left the sofa and walked over to the window he’d been staring out of earlier. “The usual,” he finally said in respond to Dr. West’s question.

“Wanting what your sister has, and frustrated that Yasmine is holding out on you.”

“She’s too liberal. Too independent.”

“Those are the things you love about her.”

What exactly is she writing? Robert wondered as Dr. West jotted on her notepad.

“You say you love Yasmine and that she loves you, although she’s never said it out loud. But, Robert, have you ever stopped to think that maybe she isn’t the right woman for you, or that you’re not the right man for her? Sometimes love just isn’t enough.”

Turning his back to Dr. West, Robert shoved his hands into the pockets of his slacks and clenched his fists as her words reverberated around in his head. He didn’t want to think of Yasmine as not being the right woman for him. She was. “Of course we’re right for each other. We’ve known each other all our lives. She’s been in love with me since she was a little girl. I probably loved her when I was younger too. I couldn’t dwell on those feelings for obvious reasons.”

“She turned down your marriage proposals, Robert. Twice,” she added with emphasis.

“Neither one of those times was right for her.” He paused. “Time seems to be always against us, doesn’t it?” His voice was heavy with cynicism. “Time, and Yasmine’s commitment issues brought on by her career. Love doesn’t last in her line of work. Her skepticism is warranted.”

“You defend her, yet you’ve stopped seeing her several times over the past five years.”

“That was just to cope with my frustrations.”

“Your frustrations with her, or with yourself?”

Robert walked across the carpet and, resuming his spot on the sofa, he stretched his legs casually before him.

“You once told me that you felt as if you needed to resolve the issue with your past before you can fully commit to any woman,” Dr. West continued, looking at him speculatively. “Since you have your own reservations about settling down before the mystery of your past is solved, I can’t help but wonder if you’re somewhat relieved Yasmine turned down your proposals.”

Robert locked his hands together behind his head and pondered on her observation. Could he really be unjustly placing all the blame for their stagnant relationship on Yasmine? Sure, it was always easier to blame the other party when things weren’t going the way one wanted.

“Or perhaps you resent Yasmine for voicing her suspicions that the man who raised you wasn’t your father,” Dr. West continued. “Her theory sent you searching for the truth of your existence and made you relive that horrifying night in your past?”

“No way!” Robert said heatedly to her absurd suggestion. He pulled his legs up and sat forward, and planting his elbows on his thighs, he clasped his hands tightly together. “If anything at all, I love Yas more for her insightfulness. If it weren’t for her, my sister and I would have had to carry the disgrace of that imposter for the rest of our lives. Yasmine gave us the means to eliminate the stain that man had placed on our family name. She gave us the chance to live our lives above reproach. Because of her, I can hold my head high. I can be the man I want to be without feeling undeserving. I can never resent Yasmine for that. She’s the reason I can love at all, that I know I will never be like Timmy Gleason because his blood isn’t running through my veins.”

“Rightly stated, Robert! But is it at all possible that you’re confusing gratitude for love?”

“No.” He shook his head vigorously. “I love Yasmine. She’s smart, sexy, and desirable. I know our love is crazy, but it’s genuine. Sex with her is phenomenal, intense, and totally satisfying—the best for both of us. That’s not gratitude. That’s love. I can’t imagine myself with any other woman. She perfects me.”

Dr. West dropped her gaze to her notepad. Her fingers toyed with the ruffled collar of her purple blouse as two bright spots appeared on her cheeks.

Robert blinked with bemusement. Dr. West’s stalwart outer appearance did not reflect her inner personality at all. She was a kind, gentle soul who, instead of marrying and raising a family of her own, had made it her lifetime mission to help bring healing to the wounded souls and hearts around her. But watching her reaction now, Robert had to wonder if she was a virgin in addition to being a spinster.

This was the first time he’d ever discussed his sex life with her, and from her uneasiness, he knew it would be the last. No need to get her old engine revving if she had nowhere to go, nor anyone to ride along with her. There was nothing more frustrating than getting all hot and bothered and having no one but Madam Fist, or in Dr. West’s case, a King George to put out the fire.

“Apart from the—um—optimum sex,” Dr. West said, meeting his gaze again, “what else about Yasmine attracts you?”

“Yasmine reminds me of my mother—loyal, trustworthy, strong, and independent.” A warm glow filtered through his chest as bits of his childhood conversation he’d had with his father at the garage flashed across his mind. “My mother had to have been strong in order to protect Michelle and me from Timmy Gleason. That’s the kind of mother I want for my children, one who would make sacrifices for them.”

“How can you be certain Yasmine would make sacrifices for her children?”

“She took in my destitute sister—twice—when she herself didn’t have much. She never asked her to pay rent once, and she fed her.” He paused as a dichotomous wave of bliss and betrayal seized him. Bliss, because Yasmine and he had just begun seeing each other, and betrayal because his sister had been at the lowest point in her life when she’d moved back in with Yasmine.

Robert cleared his throat. “I’ve watched Yasmine with her nephew for years before she became a successful attorney, back when she was temping and waitressing to put herself through school. She used to deny herself to provide for him when his parents were going through hard times. I have no doubt that she would be an excellent mother, like mine was.”

As Dr. West scribbled on her pad, Robert stared out the window at the bobbing trees again as he recalled that horrible night his mother had come back from her walk with that strange, mean man. She was crying as the man barked at her to pack her and her little boy’s clothes and gather everything of value in the apartment.

His parents didn’t have much, but his mom had a few pieces of jewelry his father had given her over the years. The man had stuffed the jewelry into his pocket, then forced Robert and his mother from the only home they’d ever known. Over a period of weeks, Timmy had made them hop one bus after another until they reached Manchester, New Hampshire, where he ran out of money.

For a while, they’d walked the streets by day while Timmy tried to find work, and by night they’d eaten and slept at a homeless shelter. After Timmy found his first of many menial jobs at a tire shop, they’d lived in a smoky motel room for a few months before moving into their first of many rundown apartments in inner-city Manchester.

Those were the facts Robert had remembered as he’d grown into a man. What he’d suppressed, killed, hidden away was the image and identity of his real father—the muscular, tall man with a mop of soft black hair on his head, and a face that seemed to be always smiling—the man who’d been in his life up until that strange night.

During a hypnotherapy session, Robert had recalled lying in bed under an open window with the hum of a box fan pushing cool air around the room. He’d remembered hearing his parents talking and laughing in the alley below. Some nights after putting him to bed, they would leave their second-floor apartment and take a walk around the building to sit directly below his bedroom—their time alone after a hard day’s work.

They always stayed within hearing range, and often shouted up at him to go to sleep when he tried to engage them in conversation. They’d shouted up at him that night, and after much coaxing, he’d climbed back into his bed and fallen asleep to the hushed voices of his parents beneath his bedroom window.

It was the last time Robert had heard his father’s voice.

Once Robert had recalled his lost memories, he’d been certain that Timmy had forced his parents away from the alley, probably at gun or knifepoint for reasons he would never know. What he did know for a fact was that they would never have wandered away from the building and left their little boy alone. They weren’t negligent parents.

“Robert.”

Robert turned to find Dr. West had left her seat and was now standing at a corner table, filling a fresh glass with water. “Yes, my time is up.”

She smiled at him. “Perhaps we can make another appointment for later this week.”

“I’ll call your secretary,” he said, rising to his feet.

Her eyes twinkled in the lamplight. “You’ll figure out the right thing to do about Yasmine, Robert, and about your past. Just follow your heart.”

Robert nodded and left her office, his mind still unsettled.

Discovering that neither he nor Michelle was related to that scumbag should have been liberating for him, Robert thought, as he eased his car into the flow of traffic on East Broadway, the first leg of his drive back to Beacon Hill.

Contrarily, it had the reverse effect on him. He’d felt like a failure, for not remembering their real father while he and Michelle were growing up—almost starved and beaten to death, and left alone for days in the winter in an apartment that had no heat, while Timmy was out drinking and gambling his meager paycheck away. He felt guilty for not remembering and speaking up on his father’s behalf, for not avenging his murder and making Timmy Gleason pay for what he’d done to him.

That bastard should have been hung upside down by his balls. Instead, he’d had an easy out by dying from cirrhosis of the liver while waiting in jail to be tried for another ghastly crime—a crime that had ended Michelle and Erik’s secret marriage, and had almost destroyed his sister’s life.

Ironically, it was that second crime that had set Robert and Michelle on the path to discovering that they weren’t related to the man who’d been abusing them all their lives—thanks to Yasmine who’d been privy to a lot of outrageous real-life cases while she’d been studying criminal law. She had posed the possibility that Timmy might not be their father, seeing that neither he nor Michelle looked anything like him. It had set Robert thinking.

Timmy Gleason was short and stocky, while Michelle, Robert, and their mother were all unusually tall. Timmy’s nose was so flat, Robert used to wonder if air could pass through it, while, again, his and his sister’s were somewhat Grecian—a trait they’d inherited from their biological father, he’d later come to realize. Timmy’s eyes were gray while all the members of the Carter family had black and brown eyes.

Those were the divulging details he should have noticed while he was growing up, he thought as he flipped on his signal light and drifted on to Storrow Drive. But as Yasmine had stated, he was too busy taking care of Michelle to suspect anything out of the ordinary. He couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

Taking Yasmine’s advice, Robert had gone through some boxes of his mother’s belongings and found a letter from a woman, warning Timmy not to return to Virginia because the man he’d stabbed had died. The envelope had been addressed to Dwight Carter, but in the letter, she’d called him Timmy. Armed with the evidence, Robert had visited Timmy Gleason in jail, and left with a couple strands of his hair. A DNA test had confirmed that neither he nor Michelle was related to him.

Robert had immediately hired a detective to research his father’s death. He’d confirmed that Dwight Carter had died from multiple stab wounds to the chest, and that a woman who’d claimed to be his common-law wife had identified his body as that of Timmy Gleason, and then had him cremated. Robert was sure it was the same woman who’d written the note to Timmy twenty-five years earlier. Unfortunately she’d also been dead for years. He had no idea if his father’s ashes had been buried in a cemetery, scattered across Richmond, dumped into a trashcan, or flushed down a toilet.

And to add to his frustrations, further research revealed that Dwight Carter and his wife Violet had both been raised in foster care, making it damned near impossible for him and Michelle to trace their family heritage.

Robert pulled his car into the deeded parking space outside his front door, killed the engine, and sat staring at the rush of traffic and pedestrians going by. He’d dropped the investigation into his parents’ past lives around the time Michelle had given birth to Little Erik so he could concentrate on being there for his sister, and bonding with his new nephew and step-niece, Precious.

He’d meant to continue researching his roots when things settled down again, but it never seemed to be the right time. Or perhaps he’d been making excuses because he was afraid of the unknown. It was time he found out where he came from, whose blood was running through his veins. He needed to test Dr. West’s theory that he’d been blaming Yasmine for their dormant relationship. Hopefully once the mystery of his obscured past was revealed, he’d be more optimistic about moving from his latent present, and into a satisfying future with the love of his life.

Loving Yasmine was easy, fulfilling and delightful, and he knew in his heart and gut that they were right for each other. But in the meantime, he would stay away from her, make her miss him, just a little.

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