She trusted him. He betrayed her. Is it too late for the truth?

Born and raised in England, Galen Carmichael grew up believing that his father died before he was born—because that is what his mother told him. But one phone call and an invitation to visit the United States from an American billionaire half-brother he never knew existed debunks that lie, and changes Galen's life in ways he never would have imagined.

The moment he walked into the exclusive boutique where she works, single mother of two, Mindy Marshall, fell hard and fast for the handsome Brit who tells her that his deepest desire in life is to please her. He proves it by treating her like a princess and doting on her young fatherless children. However, when Galen abruptly disappears from Mindy’s life for eight long months, she slowly comes to realize that what a man says, is not always what he means.

Can Galen and Mindy find their way back to each other, or will the malicious acts of another, and the shocking revelations of their parents’ pasts forever keep them apart?

Pleasing Mindy: Galen & Mindy (Beyond Granite Falls Book 3)

Chapter 1

Evergreen, New Hampshire, USA…

“I don’t like it here, Mommy. Can we go home now?”

“In a few minutes, hon.” Mindy smiled down at her five-year-old daughter huddled against her legs as they stood in subfreezing temperatures in Evergreen Cemetery.

She took a deep, unsteady breath as her eyes fixated on the limestone headstone. Kyle Grainger. Loving Son and Father. Gone Too Soon. 1993 - 2013. She wished she’d had the luxury of adding Loving Husband to his headstone. Loving Fiancé would have been her next best choice, but his mother had objected, blaming Mindy for her only child’s death.

Virginia Grainger had claimed that if Kyle hadn’t gotten mixed up with Mindy—the little trailer park trash—he would still be alive. If it was strictly up to Mrs. Grainger, Mindy would have been banned from attending Kyle’s funeral altogether. Dudley Grainger, Kyle’s father, had come to Mindy’s aid and forced Virginia to back down. He’d told his wife that their son must be so ashamed at the way she was treating the mother of her grandchildren.

Mr. Grainger had been very kind to Mindy, and he’d loved and spoiled his grandchildren every chance he got. After Kyle died, he’d begun paying Mindy’s portion of the rent on the apartment she and Kyle used to share with two of his friends. He’d become the father Mindy never had, and she’d ravenously soaked up the attention. Then tragedy struck again when Mr. Grainger suffered a heart attack and died three years after his son’s death.

Mindy’s gaze hesitantly traveled to the gravestone on the left of Kyle’s. Mrs. Grainger had blamed her for that death too, claiming that her husband had had to work overtime at Grainger & Son Painting to make up for Kyle’s absence.

For the past five years, Mindy had carried the guilt for Kyle’s death in her heart, and then for his father’s for the past three. Taking another deep breath, she pushed the regrets and the guilt aside, knowing that if she dwelt on that period of the past, if she gave it one moment’s attention, she would not be able to get up the next day and take care of the two beautiful children she and Kyle had created from their young crazy love for each other. She had to stay positive, cheerful—the devil-may-care kind of girl that Kyle had fallen in love with during their high school years.

She wiped at a half-frozen tear on her cheek. She missed him so much still, and even more on two specific dates every year.

“Why do we have to come here every week?” Her son’s contentious voice pulled her out of her cave of bittersweet memories.

“We come here twice a year, Kyle,” she said, understanding that a six-year-old’s concept of time was somewhat warped, especially when he was forced to do something he didn’t want to do. “We visit your father on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death. It’s a sign of respect,” she continued in a gentle voice. “We want your father to know that we haven’t forgotten him. Now, say ‘Happy Birthday’ to him.”

“But he’s dead. He won’t know if we come here or not. And I don’t know him.”

“I knew him. I loved him,” Mindy said emphatically. She wanted her children to have a sense of belonging, something that she’d never had since her own mother hadn’t told her who her father was until she was fifteen, and by then he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer brought on by chain-smoking since he was a teenager. She’d only had a few months with him before he died, but he hadn’t seemed to care one way or another that she existed. Mindy still couldn’t decide if it was worse to have had one parent who just completely ignored her existence, or the other who’d constantly told her that she was an inconvenient mistake.

One thing she knew, though—she never wanted her children to feel that they were mistakes or inconveniences in her life. They would always know that they were wanted and loved by both their parents, even if one of them lived in the afterlife.

She’d loved Kyle and he’d loved her, and if he hadn’t died, they would be married today. Theirs was a love that would have stood the test of time. They’d been saving up to get married and rent their own apartment when he died suddenly and tragically. It was his love for her, and his protection toward her that had caused his death. So in that regard, his mother was right. Kyle was dead because of her. She so wished that she’d lied about how she’d gotten her bruises when she’d walked into the apartment that day.

“You don’t have to know your father, Kyle,” Mindy said, passing her hand over her son’s mop of curly dark hair and gazing into his gray eyes. He was the image of his father, making it impossible for her to ever forget the wonderful but so few years she’d loved and was loved by his father. “All you need to know is that your daddy knew you. He held you in his arms, he hugged you, he kissed you. He loved you very, very much, and I loved him just as fiercely. Our love for each other made you and your sister.”

“How, Mommy?” Britt asked, staring up at Mindy through warm brown eyes. “How did you and my daddy make us?”

“With sex.” Kyle glared at her as if daring her to refute him. “That’s where babies come from.”

“What’s sex, Mommy?”

“Something you don’t need to worry about just yet,” Mindy told her five-year-old daughter. What do you know about sex? was what she wanted to ask her six-year-old son, but she tucked the question away for later when they were alone. “Say ‘Happy Birthday’ to your daddy,” she reiterated, smiling down at her children. And say ‘Hi’ to your grandfather,” she added, glancing at the headstone next to Kyle’s.

“Happy Birthday, Daddy. I love you,” Brittany said in her sweet angel voice. “I hope you like the flowers we brought.” She glanced at her grandfather’s grave. “I love you, Grandpa. I hope you like the flowers, too.”

Kyle silently stared at the headstones of his father and his grandfather, his lips drawn into a tight line, just like his father’s when he was upset, Mindy thought.

“I’m cold, Mommy.” Britt pressed her slender body against Mindy’s thigh in an effort to stay warm. “Can we go back to the car now?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Kyle stated in a vehement voice. “The car is just as cold. I hate my life!”

Mindy shuddered as she watched him stomp down the narrow path toward the car that was parked in a clearing a few yards away. He was hotheaded like his father had been, and that one particular trait scared her. She hoped to God that he would grow out of it.

“Wait up, Kyle,” Britt called, as she chased after her brother.

Alone for a few moments, Mindy pressed her lips together to stifle the cry that threatened to erupt from her throat. “I miss you,” she said, tears blurring her vision as she bent down to rearrange the fresh flowers in the mason jar on Kyle’s grave. “I’m sorry. I should have known that you would have gone after him, but I couldn’t lie to you. We’d promised never to lie to each other or to our children no matter how much the truth might hurt. I just didn’t know that that truth would hurt so much, that it would take you away from us.” She blinked as fresh tears pooled in her eyes. “You were my first love, Kyle, and I will always love you.” Her heart ached at the thought that she hadn’t even had the chance to say goodbye to him. “I’ll take good care of our beautiful kids.”

She choked on a sob as she recalled the day of Kyle’s funeral when she’d stood in this very spot for the first time with a fussy two-month-old Brittany in her arms, and a crying twenty-two-month-old Kyle Jr. hanging onto her legs. “Britt has your smile, you know—the kind that lights up a room like yours used to. She’s so sweet, Kyle, like the little angel you used to call her.”

She paused, leaned forward and ran a finger along the groove of Kyle’s name in the limestone. “I’m worried about our son, though. He’s so angry, and I don’t know what to do. I wish you were here. I try to make up for it, but I’m not enough. He needs a man in his life, a father figure…”

A father figure. Mindy shot to her feet and took a step back from the grave as if the very idea of a father figure for her son was an affront to Kyle’s memory, or perhaps she was conflicted because she’d messed up. Two and a half years ago, Mindy thought she’d finally found a man she could open up her heart to and love again, one who would love her children like his own. But Galen Carmichael, bastard half-brother of Massimo Andretti, CEO of Andretti Industries—a multibillion-dollar textile company—had turned out to be the worst mistake of her life.

Her second-worst mistake was supporting Galen when he tried to sue Massimo for half of the Andretti fortune. Mindy was aware that her decision could have cost her her job since her boss, Adam Andreas, was Massimo’s cousin. Miraculously, it hadn’t, but it had definitely dampened Mindy’s relationship with Tashi, Adam’s wife, who Mindy suspected was the only reason she still had a job.

However, her coworkers at Arabella, the boutique at Hotel Andreas—Granite Falls, where Mindy worked weren’t so forgiving. They saw her as a traitor and they shunned her for it, even to this day. Adam Andreas was the CEO of Andreas International that was comprised of Hotel Andreas and Ristorante Andreas, a chain of exclusive hotels and restaurants that spanned the globe. Adam’s employees were loyal to him, and with good cause. He cared about the people who worked for him and he treated them fairly and respectfully. He’d even remained courteous to Mindy after she’d betrayed her loyalty to his family.

In hindsight, Mindy would have chosen differently, but sometimes people in love make the worse choices. It was love at first sight for Mindy, and for Galen too, she thought, recalling one of their first conversations.

“What do you want from me?” she’d asked after Galen’s fifth trip in three days to the boutique. “Are you some kind of stalker?”

“Not a stalker, an addict.”

“What?”

“I’m addicted to you. You’re unlike any woman I’ve met, Mindy Marshall.” He flashed her a disarming smile as his sexy hazel eyes gazed deep inside her, unlocking doors she hadn’t even realized had been shut for years.

“Then you must not have met many women.” His laugh resonated deep inside Mindy’s belly, sending an army of butterflies fluttering wildly about.

“I just want to please you, Mindy Marshall.”

“Please me how?” She indulged him, loving the way he said her name in his smooth English accent. Not to mention the titillating attention he was giving her—attention of the kind she hadn’t received since Kyle.

“I’ll please you in any and every way you want to be pleased.”

A hot ache had throbbed in the dormant place between Mindy’s thighs at his words and, despite her attempts to move slowly, she’d quickly succumbed to the charms of the handsome Brit, and had accepted an invitation to dinner at his lakeside villa in Granite Falls. They’d dined on takeout from Ristorante Andreas the best restaurant in town. The food was scrumptious, as expected, but halfway through dinner, Mindy had found herself lying naked in Galen’s bed, and he was holding true to his promises—pleasing her every which way, and then some, all night long. It had been sweet, and wild, and delicious.

Mere months after they’d begun seeing each other, Galen mentioned his decision to sue Massimo for half of Andretti Industries. Mindy hadn’t hesitated to throw her support behind him, despite her mother’s disapproval and warnings that Galen wasn’t worth putting her job security in jeopardy. Their difference of opinion had widened the already existing rift between mother and daughter, but Mindy had followed her heart. Wasn’t that what a woman was supposed to do? Stand by her man? Take risks in the name of love? But love, as Mindy had later come to realize, was completely blind and stupid.

She’d stood by Galen even though she and the rest of the locals, except for those who’d been called as witnesses, had no idea what was going on inside the courtroom since both Massimo and Galen had agreed to a closed arbitration with a private judge. All parties involved, including Mindy’s mother, who’d been called as a witness because she was an employee at Andretti Industries when Galen’s mother worked there, had been prohibited from discussing the case with anyone.

Mindy had tried, unsuccessfully, to get Galen to talk to her. His irritable mood, sullenness, and aloofness each time he returned from court suggested that he might have been losing to Massimo. The case was put on hold when Galen immediately left for London after receiving a call that his grandfather had suffered a stroke and had been hospitalized.

Mindy expelled a harsh sigh. Her stupidity and irresponsibility had crippled her son’s sense of security. She knew that Galen’s prolonged absence was one of the reasons Kyle had become so angry. He’d been a very happy little boy before Galen swept into his life, bonded with him immediately, treated him like a son, and then disappeared. He’d broken Kyle’s heart, and after eight months, Mindy still couldn’t figure out how to heal the hurt her son was going through. He’d shut her out, probably blaming her for his pain, and rightfully so since she was the one who’d introduced him to Galen, made him vulnerable and subject to hurt.

It wasn’t the fact that Galen had left so abruptly that bothered Mindy. After all, he was close to his grandfather, the only living relative he had from his mother’s side. In actuality, the only living relative he had in the world since he and Mass were at odds with each other. What bothered her was that in the eight months since she’d dropped him off at the airport, he’d only called her once to let her know that he’d arrived in London and was on his way to the hospital to see his grandfather.

After that, nothing—no calls, e-mails, texts, video chats—nothing but absolute silence. She’d tried to reach him, but each call had gone straight to voicemail. She’d left messages asking him to call her. Eventually, an “out of service” message had put an end to her efforts to contact him. It had crossed Mindy’s mind that Galen might have gotten back with his ex, Trix, the woman for whom he’d been buying a present the first time Mindy had met him at Arabella, but she’d squelched that idea at the memory of the love she and Galen had shared for almost three years.

Out of her concern for him, she’d swallowed her pride and asked Tashi if she knew whether Galen had been in contact with Massimo. As far as Tashi knew, he hadn’t. Mindy had taken her concern one step further and asked Tashi if she thought he’d died, to which Tashi had responded, “We would all know if he had.”

As the silence grew louder and the weeks turned into months, Mindy’s concerns had slowly turned into anger, anger into pain, and now pain into hate and self-loathing for allowing herself to be conned by that lowdown, lying Brit.

He’d shown his true nature as an Andretti. He might not carry the Andretti name, but he carried their blood. The whole world knew that the male members of the Andretti family were faithful only to two things—money and power. Galen’s very existence proved his father’s unfaithfulness to his wife—Massimo’s mother. Maybe their creed was that when money and power—neither of which Galen had—weren’t at their disposal, they just weren’t faithful to anyone or anything.

If Mindy Marshall never saw Galen Carmichael again, it would be too soon.

A dusting of snow from an overhead tree branch landed on Mindy’s forehead, bringing her awareness back to her surroundings. She brushed the snow away and stared apologetically at Kyle’s grave. “I’ll choose better next time. I promise. I have to go now,” she said as Kyle and Britt’s laughter penetrated the dead silence of the cemetery. She touched her fingers to her lips and pressed them on the headstone. “I’ll see you in November.” She pushed her hands into her coat pockets and made her way toward the car and her children, who were chasing each other around it.

Before he died, she and Kyle had dreamed about leaving Evergreen, even New Hampshire, for a better life somewhere. They’d considered Boston, New York—cities that were filled with life and excitement. Those dreams had died with Kyle. And it wasn’t until four years ago that Mindy did leave Evergreen behind, not for New York or Boston, but for the next town over to live with her brother, Billy. Even though she’d lived in a rundown section of Granite Falls, it was better than being in the then lazy town of Evergreen where nothing was happening, and where as a single mother she’d had no hope or opportunities to improve her life and provide a better future for her children.

If she hadn’t left Evergreen, she would not have met Tashi Holland, the aloof girl who’d lived next door in the dilapidated, rodent-infested apartment building where Mindy and her brother lived. Tashi’s accidental collision with Adam in a cafe almost three years ago had changed the course of both their lives forever. It was because of Tashi that Adam had offered Mindy a job at Arabella.

Mindy made a good wage for a one-person household, but not good enough for a one-income family of three. Nevertheless, she’d been able to move into a nicer section of town, but she’d had to be wise and frugal with her spending. Her employment also came with excellent medical and dental benefits and a full college scholarship, so she really couldn’t complain. She was in her third year of school, and Adam had promised her a promotion once she earned her degree in Office Management, so she did have that to look forward to.

“You want to play tag with us, Mommy?” Britt yelled as Mindy got close to the car.

“I wish, baby, but we have to leave now.” The Graingers also visited Kyle’s grave on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death. When Mr. Grainger was alive, they’d all come together, and Mrs. Grainger had kept her resentment for Mindy in check. But in the past three years she’d made no attempt to disguise her hostility. She’d even upset the children. So that they could both honor Kyle in peace, Mindy had suggested that they split the days in two sessions, and alternate visiting with the children each year. Mindy had the morning sessions with her children this year, but it was almost one o’clock and Mrs. Grainger would be arriving soon. Mindy had no desire to see that dragon’s face today, or any other day for that matter.

“Can we go get pizza, Mommy?” Kyle asked.

“I’m sorry, honey, but I have a test tomorrow night, so I have to study for the rest of the day.” Besides, we have food at home. I don’t have money to splurge on a pizza. With a heavy heart and a tired soul, she opened the back door to let her children in.

“You can study while we’re in school tomorrow,” Kyle said as he scooted to the far seat and buckled his seatbelt. “You do that sometimes.”

“Yeah, when I don’t have to work the morning shift. Tomorrow isn’t one of those days.” She tucked two blankets tightly around them.

“You’re always working, or studying, or going to school. You’re no fun,” Kyle said.

“Yes, she is, Kyle. Mommy is fun,” Brittany said, coming to her aid. “She plays dolls with me.”

“That’s because you’re a girl. She never does any boy stuff like Galen used to do with me. Grandma said you chased him away, ‘cause that’s what you do with men. She said you’re a loser. That’s why you had to move back to Evergreen. I want Galen to be my daddy, not some dead guy.” Kyle pulled the blanket over his head.

Mindy closed the door and leaned against the car as she tried to catch her breath. She didn’t need to ask which grandma her son was referring to since they called Mindy’s mother Nana.

Mrs. Grainger had ridiculed Mindy for losing yet another man who was obviously too good for her. She’d even called Mindy some terrible names, right to her face, for getting pregnant at sixteen, and again at seventeen. Mindy knew the woman was poisoning her son against her, and if she didn’t need her to watch her kids when her own mother couldn’t, Mindy would have cut her access to them—grandma or no grandma. But beggars couldn’t be choosers.

One more year, just one more, she thought as she walked around the car and got behind the wheel. She turned the engine over three times and, when it sputtered to life, she breathed a sigh of relief. She backed out of the cemetery then immediately slammed on her brakes when a black SUV turned abruptly into the parking area.

“Damn!” Mindy’s entire body went numb. One second earlier and she would have been in a serious accident.

“That’s a bad word, Mommy,” Brittany said. “Not nice.”

Mindy set the car in park and turned around. “I was just scared that you could have been hurt if we had an accident. I’ll try not to say it again.” In your presence.

“It’s Grandma.” Kyle tossed off his blanket. “I’m going home with her. She’s got heat in her car.” He opened his door and jumped out.

“Kyle, get your little butt back in this car,” Mindy grated between clenched teeth. “Now!” she barked when he glared at her as if he would disobey her order.

He grumbled something under his breath, climbed back in, slammed the door, and burrowed down under his blanket.

Deciding to deal with him when she got home, Mindy turned and rolled down her window as the medium-built, dark-haired woman walked toward them.

Mrs. Grainger stopped beside Mindy’s car and peered in through the window. “Hi, babies, you okay?”

“We’re fine, Grandma. Can I go—”

“Kyle!” Mindy warned.

“Mommy said a bad word because we almost got in an accident,” Brittany said.

“What are you trying to do, Mindy? Kill my grandchildren? Isn’t it enough that you’ve—”

“Okay, that’s enough!” Mindy rolled up her window and turned to her children. “Mommy will be right back. Stay in the car. Understand?”

They both nodded, their eyes wide with uncertainty and fear.

Mindy yanked her door open, forcing her nemesis to jump back. She grabbed her by the elbow and hauled her toward the shiny black SUV. She was done being afraid of this woman. She would not let her put the blame for Kyle’s death on her anymore. Come to think of it, Kyle had had a choice. He didn’t have to go after Danny, but he did. “I am so tired of you belittling me in front of my children, blaming me for Kyle’s death. I won’t tolerate it anymore.”

“Well, if you hadn’t been at Danny’s apartment, he wouldn’t have attacked you. If you ask me, I’d say that you were begging for it. The way you used to dress like the little tramp that you are. You were a walking invitation.”

“You’re blaming me for my boyfriend’s friend offering me a ride from the supermarket. But instead of driving me home, he takes me to his apartment where he lives with his girlfriend—one of my best friends—and asks me to come in to approve a gift he’d bought for her, just so he could make his move on me, then beat me up when I refused his advances.”

Mindy swallowed the humiliation as she recalled that rainy afternoon, and how she’d had to fight off a six-foot-plus, hundred-and-eighty-pound boy with her five-foot-five-inch, one-hundred-and-five-pound body. Oftentimes, Mindy had wished that she’d just let Danny have his way. If she’d just lain down and taken it, Kyle would be alive today. She could just have kept the shame and pain bottled up inside, carried the internal bruises forever, but she couldn’t have hidden the physical bruises that Danny had left on her body. She’d promised never to lie to Kyle, and so she’d told him the truth.

“It still doesn’t change anything, Mindy. My son is dead because of you. If you hadn’t gotten yourself pregnant, he wouldn’t have stayed with you. He would have gone on to college and made something of himself like his father and I had been planning since the day he was born. I don’t wish this kind of pain on any mother, not even you.”

Mindy sniffled and wiped at the tears that rolled down her cheek. “Virginia, I begged Kyle not to go after Danny. I knew the danger of him riding his bike on the slippery roads. I begged him to wait until the next day when the rain had stopped, but he didn’t listen to me. I loved your son. I miss him every single day, especially when I hold my son and my daughter in my arms. I struggle to raise his children, to make a decent life for them. I deny myself so they can have what they need. You call me a tramp when you know that Kyle was my first and only boyfriend until Galen came along. I denied myself love and romance because I didn’t want to expose my kids to someone who might mistreat them.”

Virginia scoffed. “See how that turned out. What did you do to make him leave you? Face it, you’re bad news when it comes to men.”

Mindy decided to ignored her insults. This wasn’t about her. This was about Virginia’s grandchildren. “You hate me so much that you think helping your grandchildren, buying them a pair of shoes or a backpack for school once in a while would be helping me. You buy them toys and clothes that they are only allowed to keep at your house. You punish them to punish me. You are a selfish, vindictive woman, Virginia Grainger. I have often wondered how you could have given birth to a child as kindhearted, honorable, and loyal as Kyle. I guess he took after his father.”

Virginia grabbed her by the elbow. “You listen here, you little—”

Mindy shook her arm free and glared at Virginia. “Don’t you ever touch me again, woman!” She wagged her finger in her face. “Now, you listen! You will stop poisoning my children against me. You will stop telling them that I’m a loser. I’m their mother. I’m a good mother. Think or say whatever you want about me behind their backs, but you will respect me when in their presence, whether or not I’m with you. Or I swear to God, you will not see them anymore.”

“You can’t keep me from seeing my grandchildren.”

“You want to bet, Virginia? I have friends in very high places.” Yes, she thought, as the words spewed from her mouth, I am playing the Tashi card. “Tashi Andreas, my boss’ wife, for one. I’m sure you’ve heard of her. Why do you think I still have my job after I sided with Massimo’s half brother?” she added, refusing to mention Galen’s name. “You have until Thursday to apologize for trying to turn my children against me, or your weekend visit with them will be postponed until further notice. Now, go wish your son a happy birthday, and while you’re at it, apologize to him for being a jerk to the mother of his children.”

While Virginia’s mouth hung open, Mindy marched back to her cold old jalopy, and her children. She inhaled deep breaths of the crisp air. God, she felt good. Light as a feather as if a two-ton load had been lifted from her shoulder. Why the heck hadn’t she done that years ago?

You weren’t ready, a tiny voice said to her. You’re not caged anymore. You got your wings back.

Mindy got into her car and sat for a moment watching Virginia as she slowly made her way down the path to her son’s and husband’s graves, her head bowed in defeat or shame, Mindy had no idea. But she did feel sorry for the woman. No mother should ever have to visit her son’s grave.

“Did you and Grandma have a fight?” Britt asked.

“Yes,” Mindy said without even contemplating her response. “Grown-ups sometimes fights, but we’ll be fine,” she added, as her car backfired when she eased it out onto the street.

“People laugh at your car, you know,” Kyle stated, almost comically.

Mindy smiled. “I know. And some of them who’re laughing don’t even have cars. So there.”

Her car was twenty years old—almost as old as Mindy—rusted and dented with slightly over three hundred thousand miles under its belt. She’d say that it had been ready to retire when she’d bought it at an auction for five hundred dollars with her first paycheck from AI. She realized now that she should have gotten a cheaper apartment and a better car back then. Nevertheless, it had served her well for those two and a half years. It had warned her that it wouldn’t last much longer when it stopped producing heat two months ago and then last month when the exhaust system began to fail. She was grateful it was still running, though.

Perhaps she should have taken Galen up on his offer to buy her a car. At least she would have gotten something good out of their relationship. She was so stupid.

“It’s embarrassing,” Kyle said, when the car backfired again, leaving a trail of smoke behind them.

Brittany giggled. “I think it’s funny. Putup, putup, bang!”

“Laugh all you want,” Mindy said with a chuckle. “This old thing takes me to work and school, and you, to wherever you need to go. We must always be grateful for the things in our lives and treat them with respect and kindness,” she added on a serious note. “Sometimes, it’s only when they’re gone that we realize how much we needed them, loved them.”

“Like Daddy, Mommy?” sweet Brittany asked. “He’s gone to heaven, but you still love him, right?”

Mindy nodded. Her little girl was so smart to understand symbolic language. “Yes, Britt, like your daddy,” she said in a choked voice.

And the sad thing is, I might never find another man to love us as unconditionally as he did.

Chapter 2

Ashford, Surrey, England…

“Sign here, here, and here, and then we’ll be all set.”

Galen held his breath as Trix signed the places on the forms where the solicitor pointed out. When the ink began to dry on her last signature, he let out a slow breath.

The solicitor took back the pen he’d loaned Trix, stacked the piles of paper that had been scattered around the table, and placed them into his briefcase. He stood hurriedly to his feet as if he couldn’t wait to leave.

“Thank you for traveling all this way, Mr. Peabody,” Galen said, standing, and offering his hand to the middle-aged man on whom he’d recently come to depend for legal counsel.

Mr. Peabody gave Galen’s hand a hearty shake. “I will have everything ready for you to pick up tomorrow afternoon, Mr. Carmichael. I must leave now if I want to avoid rush hour back to London.” He turned to Trix. “Good day, Miss Noyes,” he said, tipping his head before moving toward the exit.

“How much is he costing you?” Trix asked Galen as he reclaimed his seat.

“A bloody lot.”

“You could have gotten a cheaper one.”

“I could have, but the stakes were too high for anything less,” he stated in response to the reproof in her voice and silver eyes. How dare she?

“How are you going to pay his fees? Especially now that you—”

“Perhaps you should have thought of that before you destroyed my life,” he snapped.

“I’ve said I’m sorry, Galen, several times, but I know it will not erase what I did, the trouble I’ve caused you.”

“You’re right about that.” Galen crossed his arms and stared at her, thankful for the umpteenth time in the past eight months that he’d never revealed the identity of his biological father to her. Call it instinct or foresight, but he’d always been wary about sharing private information with her. What a freaking bigger mess this would have been if he had.

All Trix knew was that he’d grown up believing his father was dead when in fact he’d been alive for the first seventeen years of Galen’s life. But she didn’t know that his father was the late Luciano Andretti who owned one of the most successful textile companies on the planet. She didn’t know that the half brother he’d spoken of was the infamous reformed playboy, Massimo Andretti, the current CEO of the Andretti multibillion-dollar corporation.

Growing up a penniless bastard had been bad, but the embarrassment of discovering that he was the penniless bastard of one of the richest men in the world—a man who didn’t give a fig about him—had kept Galen from broadcasting the news of his lineage to the world. And neither had Massimo, the only legitimate heir to the Andretti fortune.

Only family, close friends, and a selected few in the States knew he was an Andretti. His deceased mother and aunt, and his recently deceased grandfather, were the only Brits who’d known the truth. Telling the world that he was an Andretti might have helped with the trouble he’d found himself in when he returned to England eight months ago. But it would have been humiliating if Massimo, with whom he’d been locked in a court battle for the Andretti fortune and who’d called Galen a conniving little usurper a few days before Galen left Granite Falls, had refused to come to his aid.

Galen wished he’d kept even less important private information from Trix. He wished he’d never told her about his grandfather, or told her where he was living.

He wished he could say that he wished he’d never met her.

He glanced at his watch. “Listen, I need to get on the road. It’s been a long day.”

“I know. But before you go, tell me you won’t let him forget me. I know you’re a man of your word. I need to hear you say it.”

Galen looked around the visitor’s room at HMP Bronzefield Women’s Prison located on the outskirts of Ashford in Surrey. The murmur of adult voices and the enlivened chatter of children swirled around him. He couldn’t wait to end this debilitating chapter of his life once and for all. He turned back to her. “No, I won’t let him forget you.”

It was a promise he wished he didn’t have to make.

She gave him a bland smile and combed her fingers through her short crop of dark hair. “Thank you. I’m glad I named him after you.”

“Not really. You gave him my middle name.”

“Would you’ve been happier if I’d given him your first name too?”

“It’s not as if you gave me a choice,” he said in a mildly contentious tone.

“I don’t want to argue about his name, Galen. I’m just saying that I’m at peace because I know you’ll take good care of him. I’ve always known you had a good heart. You’re kind and responsible and one of the most honorable men I’ve ever known.”

The jury is still out on that one. Especially one juror in particular. A different kind of wretchedness settled into his heart. He cleared his throat and shifted his weight on the chair. “It will be difficult for me to explain why his mummy isn’t around in a way that he can understand. He’s still a baby.”

“Just tell him that I went to heaven, that I’m with the angels.”

Heaven? Angels? There’s a gross misstatement of the facts if ever there was one.

With an opposing mixture of indifference and gratitude, Galen stared at the woman who’d given him an unexpected and beautiful gift—a one-and-a-half-year-old son—who was now the center of Galen’s world. Geoffrey was the one and only reason that Galen could not say that he wished he’d never met Beatrix Noyes.

Their first encounter had happened about four years ago at a London pub where Trix worked as a cocktail waitress. Five years his senior, Trix wasn’t what most men would call physically attractive, but she was sociable and highly intelligent. Immediately after he sat down at her bar, she’d engaged him and a few other patrons in conversation about domestic politics, world affairs, history, and a host of other engaging topics. Before he knew it, the bar had closed, and instead of having Trix take the tube, he’d driven her home. He’d stayed for breakfast the following morning.

A then recent graduate of Oxford University, Galen had just started an entry-level position at a marketing company in London while also helping his grandfather run Carmichael’s Furniture—the family’s mediocre-performing household furniture company.

He hadn’t been looking for a romantic commitment, and neither had Trix. They’d both been content with a purely physical relationship—a friends with benefits deal. She worked at a small bank in London by day, and as a bartender by night. She was a fun-loving girl with no real plans in life. She went where the wind blew her—her very own words. Words, he knew, she would be regretting for the rest of her life.

“Galen, will you do that for me? Will you just tell our son that I’m dead? It’s the least you can do.”

Galen tried to mask his emotions with a deceptive calmness in his voice. “There’s no need for Geoffrey to think that you’re dead. I will bring him to see you from time to time. Despite your—” He waved his hand around as he tried to find the right words to describe her situation. “Your unfortunate circumstance, you are his mother. Nothing can ever change that.”

“I gave up the right to motherhood when I killed Jacob Miner.”

“Oh no, you gave it up long before that.”

She averted her gaze and stared at the wall behind him for a few silent moments. “You’re right, and that’s why I don’t want him to ever know where I am, or what I did. I don’t want him to bear the burden of my shame. If he thinks I’m dead, he won’t go looking for answers.”

Impervious to her teary eyes and voice, it nevertheless pained him to think that his son would be growing up without his mother in his life. Yes, it would be a lot easier for him to tell Geoffrey that his mother was dead, and spare him the knowledge of her crimes and lifetime incarceration. It was the easy thing to do, but definitely not the right thing.

Galen felt suffocated and handicapped by the eight-month nightmare that had ended a few weeks ago when Scotland Yard and the National Crime Agency had finally taken down the organized crime ring that had totally destroyed his life.

“All he’ll know is what you tell him,” Trix said, “and I hope you’ll paint a decent picture of me, the way you knew me before all this happened.”

“I grew up thinking that my father was dead because that’s what my mother told me,” he said. “I won’t lie to our son. For now, when he cries for you, I’ll tell him that you are away on holiday. I’ll figure something out for the next few years when he asks about his mummy. But when he’s old enough to understand, I will tell him the whole truth.”

“The truth will crush him.”

“Perhaps, but the truth always has a way of coming out from hiding. It may take years, sometimes decades, but it eventually makes its presence known.” He fisted his hands on his thighs as the memory of his own mother’s deception raced through him. A deception he’d learned about from Massimo, the half brother Galen hadn’t known existed until an out-of-the-blue telephone conversation, almost four years ago.

Galen had learned from Massimo that their father, Luciano, had died six years prior to that call, and not twenty-five years ago as Galen had previously been told. At that moment, it had become clear to Galen that his mother had lied to him. The reasons? Neither he nor Massimo knew at the time. One thing was clear, though—their father had had an illicit affair with Galen’s mother.

It was ironic that Galen was now having the kind of conversation with the woman who’d given birth to his son that might be similar in nature to the one his parents might have had with each other, twenty-six years ago.

“What do I say when our child asks about his father?” his mother might have asked.

“Tell him I’m dead.”

And that’s exactly what his mother had told him.

“Your father is dead, Galen. He died before you were born.”

“What was his name, and how did he die, Mummy?”

“It’s best you don’t ask questions about him. He wasn’t a very nice man, you know.”

That had been the extent of Galen’s knowledge about his father until Massimo’s phone call. The fact that Luciano had been alive for the first seventeen years of Galen’s life, and hadn’t bothered once to get in touch with him, had filled Galen with anger and resentment toward both his neglectful father and his lying mother, who’d taken the answers to all his questions to the grave with her. He never wanted his son to feel such resentment toward him for lying about his mother. He was determined to be a better father than his had been—an involved and present father, the kind of father he’d been to Mindy’s children.

Mindy. A bolt of lightning shot through Galen’s body as Mindy’s alluring face appeared in his mind. Her seductive eyes beckoned to him, and his body responded with vigor. He longed for her soft touch, her warmth, her…

“Galen, please! I don’t want my son to think that I’m a monster.”

Mindy’s image vanished with lightning speed into the ethers. Galen glanced around at the other inmates and their visitors, whose attention Trix’s outburst had drawn. This was her life, and he was probably the only visitor she would have from this day forward. All her friends had deserted her after she’d confessed to killing the night watchman at her bank. She was alone. He could lie to her now, just so she would have peace of mind. But she didn’t deserve that, not after the mess she’d made of his and Geoffrey’s lives.

“Geoffrey should learn the truth from me rather than from someone else, who might not be delicate in the way they explain it to him,” he said quietly, even as he fought the nauseating feeling that had crippled him when he’d learned the truth about his own mother’s affair with a married man. If only she’d been honest with him from the beginning. “The day will come when he will ask questions about his mother.” He shook his head. “I will not tell him lies that I will have to retract when he stumbles on the truth in some other way. I will not lie to my son,” he reiterated with cold emphasis.

Your son?” Trix asked, rancor sharpening her voice. “A moment ago, he was our son. Am I to believe now that you might poison him against me instead of just telling him that I’m dead? That’s worse, Galen. How can you be so cruel? I thought you—”

Galen slammed his fist on the table as all the misery she’d caused him the past few months slammed into his gut like a ton of bricks. He was tired of holding back his anger, of pretending that what she’d done to him and Geoffrey could be easily forgiven and forgotten.

“Cruel? You call me cruel?” he hissed under his breath to keep the argument in their corner, and the guards from escorting him to the door before he spoke his mind. They were very strict in here about confrontation.

“This is what cruel is, Trix: you drugged me and then hopped on me. You got pregnant and never bothered to tell me. You gave birth to my son in this hellhole of a prison, and recorded another man’s name on his birth certificate when you knew bloody well I was his father. He spent the first seventeen months of his life here. Was not telling me about Geoffrey payback because I told you that I’d met someone in America when I woke up in your bed the morning after you’d seduced me? Was this payback, Trix?”

“At first, yes. I was cross that you’d thrown the fact that you had a new life, a new girlfriend, and two children you were playing daddy to in my face. My parents are dead. I have no other relatives. He was all I had. And quite frankly, I didn’t think you would want him since—”

“How could you think I wouldn’t want my son when you know the hell I went through after learning that my own father had deliberately ignored me? How could you think that I would want my son to grow up without ever knowing me?”

“Well—”

“If it wasn’t for my grandfather’s stroke bringing me back to England at the right time, I probably would never have known of Geoffrey’s existence. And how did I find out?” he snapped as his anger reached fever point. “From your partners in crime. They banned me from coming here to meet my son with threats to his life. They threatened Granddad’s, Mindy’s, and her children’s lives if I didn’t go along with their program. My past association with you led them to my grandfather. He may have died thinking that I was a rotten scumbag, all because of you.”

“I didn’t know the Fraser family was in organized crime or I wouldn’t have gotten involved with Basil. By the time I realized why he’d befriended me, it was too late for both me and Geoffrey.” She pressed her lips together as tears streamed down her face. “I had to do everything they wanted to protect my unborn child. I killed for him. And that still wasn’t enough for them. Even here in prison, we weren’t safe. They had people in here watching me, listening to my conversations. I couldn’t trust anybody. I couldn’t call you. I couldn’t warn your grandfather. I’m sorry that he died. He was such a nice old chap.”

Grief ripped through Galen’s gut at the thought of the way his grandfather had died. He should have been here to take care of him instead of off in Granite Falls fighting Massimo for half of Andretti Industries. He took no comfort in the fact that had he won the case, he would have used the money to revive Carmichael’s Furniture. Now, because of the disgrace attached to his family’s business, he couldn’t use that name anymore. He was as much to blame for his grandfather’s death as Trix and her gang of thugs.

And on top of all that, it was highly possible that he had lost the love and trust of the only woman he’d ever loved because he couldn’t call to tell her that from the moment he’d stepped onto English soil, he’d been trapped in an eight-month-long season of The Catch.

The most terrifying thought had been that he might never see his son, much less get custody of him. Galen had been all alone in the world with the knowledge that he had a young son who needed him, but whom he might never have the opportunity of meeting if he’d made one wrong move. He’d had everything to lose if he didn’t stick to their program.

“Galen, you can have a bit of pity for me, can’t you?”

Galen recoiled as he felt her hand on his. Pity? She wanted pity? “All this could have been avoided if you’d only told me that you were pregnant with my child long before you met Basil. I spent seven months in England before I was able to see my son, hold him in my arms.” He pushed back his chair, raking the legs against the floor as he stood up. At this moment, he did not care about Trix’s situation or her feelings. She had placed his freedom, his reputation, and the well-being of Geoffrey, Mindy, and Mindy’s children in danger. Her actions had caused his grandfather’s death. She had brought this disaster upon herself. She was not his responsibility. Geoffrey was his priority, and so were Mindy, Kyle, and Brittany.

“Galen, I’m sorry. If I could go back—”

“You can’t go back, Beatrix, and neither can I. It’s done,” he said with a resigned shrug of his shoulders. “I have to look toward my future and that of my son. I will bring Geoffrey by tomorrow so you can say goodbye before we leave. It’s the last time you’ll see him for a while. Make it count.” He yanked his jacket from the back of the chair and sprinted toward the exit, ignoring Trix’s frantic calls.

Once outside, Galen leaned against the building and took a moment to cool him temper as a mixture of conflicting emotions stormed his brain. Since the threat from the Frasers had been removed from their lives, he’d visited Trix often to bond with his son while he was still in his mother’s care, and so she could teach Galen about Geoffrey’s schedule, his favorite foods, his likes and dislikes, the way he liked being held—things that only Trix, the only person in Geoffrey’s life up to that point, would know.

Today was the first time he’d lashed out at her. Maybe it was because he finally had custody of his son and didn’t need to fear anyone threatening to take him away if Galen stepped out of bounds. He’d actually had to step out of bounds as Geoffrey’s eighteen-month birthday had drawn closer and closer—the date upon which he would have been placed into foster care or adopted, since that was the cut-off age at which Bronzefield allowed children to stay with their mothers. It was frightening to think of his son being raised by strangers who might have mistreated him all his life, or taken by the Frasers who might have simply decided to kill him, or sell him.

Galen inhaled deeply, gathering up the remaining fury still lingering in his belly and blew it out through his mouth. His muscles relaxed as he watched the long puff of vapor dissipate into the cold English night.

The past eight months had been hell on earth for him, but the end results—knowing he had a son and had gained custody of him—had been worth it. His only regret was that his beloved grandfather had paid the ultimate price—his life. Galen could only hope that his granddaddy had believed him when he’d denied stealing his life’s savings and destroying his legacy. He could only hope, and take comfort in the fact that the Carmichael name and genes would continue on through Baxter Geoffrey Carmichael’s grandson and great-grandson.

More composed now, Galen strolled toward his car in the visitors’ parking area. As angry as he was with Trix, a tiny part of him understood her need to keep the only family she had close to her for as long as she could. Everybody needed love and acceptance from their relatives. His own need for family connection had led him to accept Massimo’s initial invitation to visit him in the States.

He’d spent months with Massimo and Shaina—his wife of one year—their infant daughter, Aria, Shaina’s younger brother, Cameron, and his girlfriend, Monica. It had been a wonderful experience to get to know Massimo, to bond with him and his family, and to learn about his paternal heritage.

The fact that Massimo had inherited the family’s multibillion-dollar company hadn’t bothered Galen at that time. He’d been grateful that Massimo had reached out to him, had wanted to include him in his life and introduce him to his extended family, the Andreases—especially his cousin Adam—owners of the world-renowned establishments, Hotel Andreas and Ristorante Andreas.

In addition to Adam, Galen had met Mass’ other two, billionaire friends. Dr. Erik LaCrosse was one of the best OB/GYN in the world and Bryce Fontaine was the founder of Fontaine Enterprises. Those four families were the most respected and prominent members of Granite Falls and the surrounding communities. Galen had been proud that the blood running through his veins had come from one of the most brilliant, shrewd minds in the business world. He’d never felt as strong a sense of belonging as he had those few months he’d spent at the Andretti estates in Granite Falls, New Hampshire. That visit had changed his life in ways he’d never imagined possible.

Galen unlocked his car and, once he was seated and buckled in, he opened the glove compartment and pulled out a photo. In order to protect it from any association with Bronzefield, and from being tainted by the guards’ hands during the customary search, he’d left it in the car.

His heart pounded against his chest as he gazed into the eyes that stared back at him. During his first visit to Granite Falls, Galen had also met Mindy Marshall—a single mother of two young children. He’d been captivated by her sweet brown eyes from the moment he first stared into them at Arabella, the boutique at Hotel Andreas where she worked—still worked—as a clerk.

Her sense of humor, her spontaneity, and fun-loving, energetic personality had drawn him into her mesmerizing world. Mindy was different from any other woman Galen had ever met. Unlike his norm when it came to women, he’d wanted to take things slowly with her, especially because she was so young and had two fatherless children. Also, he hadn’t yet, officially, broken things off with Trix.

Galen had had many meaningless short-lived affairs in his young life, and had only come to understand his own salacious nature after meeting Massimo. It was in his blood. Ironically, like Massimo, and unlike their father, Galen had always been faithful to the women he dated. He didn’t want Mindy to ever be labeled “the other woman” when she’d become “the woman” from the moment he’d first met her.

Mindy had also been cautious and reluctant at first, but as the rising passion between them became undeniable, Galen had called Trix to tell her that they were over. As he’d expected, she didn’t care one way or the other, and had told him that she was already seeing someone else.

Free to fall in love for the first time in his life, Galen had pulled out all the stops to win Mindy over, not that she needed any coercion. His mind drifted back to that moonlit Saturday night when they’d first made love in his villa on Crystal Lake. That had been the most amazing night of Galen’s life up to that point, and he’d had many more with her since then.

His throat tightened with emotion as he traced the outline of her mouth with his fingertip. “I miss you, Mindy, so much, love. My only hope is that you’ll understand and forgive me when I explain everything to you.”

He was heartbroken over the pain he knew his absence and silence was causing her, but the Frasers had warned him that they could get to Mindy and her children anytime they wanted. And knowing how much Mindy loved him, Galen knew that she would have been on the next flight to London if she’d even sensed that he was in trouble.

Mindy was the kind of woman who stood by her man, as she’d so fearlessly demonstrated by taking his side in his fight with Massimo. But standing by her man this time would have definitely gotten her killed, or worse, kept as a sex slave like many of the young girls he’d heard his roommate and other members of the gang discussing in the most degrading manner.

To protect Mindy and avoid getting even more blood on his hands, Galen had had no choice but to keep the silence between them going.

He’d thought of calling her after the authorities had finally rounded up and indicted the last of the gang, but the debilitating truth was that since he’d never told Mindy that he’d slept with Trix after they’d been together, how could he explain Geoffrey’s existence? It wasn’t the kind of conversation one had over the phone. He needed to be standing in front of her so that she could slap his face or punch him in the gut for betraying her if that’s what she wanted to.

“I promise to make it up to you, baby, even if it takes me the rest of my life. I will never give up on us.” With tears in his eyes, Galen kissed Mindy’s picture and then placed it into his shirt pocket, close to his heart.

As he eased into the flow of afternoon traffic en route to London and his suite at Hotel Andreas-London, Galen knew without a doubt that his first visit to Granite Falls had been a life-changing event. He’d gotten over the fact that his father had neglected him and had instead chosen to revel in the acceptance and affection from Massimo and his family, his friends and their families, and the new relationships that he’d made along the way. Spending time with Mindy and her children had been one of the few pinnacles of his life.

He’d been on a natural high for months. Then the floor had collapsed from under him when he’d returned to England for Christmas that same year.

Chapter 3

On her dying bed, Galen’s mother’s older sister, Gertrude, had told Galen that his parents had been in love with each other before he was born. Massimo’s then pregnant mother, Giuliana, had threatened to take Massimo and her unborn child away from Luciano if he didn’t end his relationship with Judith. Giuliana had also ordered Judith not to ever reveal the paternity of her bastard child to anyone, not even the child, or else the financial support she’d set up for him would stop.

Since Andretti family business was structured so that only legitimate heirs could inherit, Luciano had buckled under his wife’s demands and sent his pregnant lover back to England. He never spoke to her again, nor had he ever seen the child their love had created.

Galen had gone to the pub where Trix worked and over a few drinks, had bitched and moaned about his father’s wife, who’d come between Galen’s father and mother.

He’d awakened the following morning to a grinning Trix praising him for giving her the best shag of her life. She’d said that she missed him while he was away, and that she was ready to get serious and settle down. She’d even asked if he’d take her back to the States with him.

Galen had told her about Mindy, and that he loved her and her two kids. And then he’d hightailed it from Trix’s flat with remorse, disgust, and self-loathing for betraying Mindy, cramming the space where anger and heartbreak had been the previous night. Up to this day, Galen still could not remember the alleged night of sex with Trix, but Geoffrey’s birth nine months later was proof that he’d slept with her.

Galen floored the gas pedal as he merged onto M25 toward London. He was anxious to get home to his son—a son he’d known existed for eight months, but whom he hadn’t seen or held in his arms until recently.

As Geoffrey’s eighteen-month birthday had drawn closer and closer, Galen’s fear of never meeting him had outweighed his fear of the Fraser family. He still had one ace up his sleeve, one chip to cash in even though it meant losing a little dignity.

He got his chance when Geoffrey was sixteen months old. Christmas, as it turned out, was a big deal for the Frasers, plus one of the young women in the family was getting married on Christmas Eve. Galen’s roommate—the man who had stolen Galen’s identity— was spending less time at the flat and more at the family’s luxury compound in Ireland. The faux Galen’s coconspirators’ visits had dwindled also, much to Galen’s relief.

In mid-December, Charles Fraser, the patriarch of the family, had called Galen on the cell phone they’d given him and told him that since he’d been such a good, obedient servant, he would have a break from the impromptu frisking, searching, and beatings for the holidays. He was still expected to make his scheduled deposits and transfers though, and he’d better not do anything stupid since someone could be watching him.

The moment he’d hung up from Charles, Galen left his flat and walked into the restaurant across the street, snagged a cell phone from a stranger’s coat hanging on the back of her chair, walked into the bathroom, and called Massimo. The call had gone straight to voicemail. Galen had left as much details as he could about his situation, his address, his schedule, and the names of the banks where he made weekly deposits. He’d begged Mass not to make Geoffrey pay for his mistakes.

To Galen’s utmost surprise, Mass was sitting behind the desk, posing as a clerk in the bank where Galen had gone to conduct business the next day. It had taken all of Galen’s strength not to break down and cry when he’d realized that his big brother—the one he’d tried to destroy—had come to his aid without a moment’s hesitation.

While they worked on the deposits and transfers, Mass had told him that he’d done some digging and had all the scoop on the Fraser family—their illegal operations, their compounds and homes, their bank accounts, and he’d even found some of the other young women who’d fallen victim to them. He was certain they would testify against the Frasers if called upon to do so.

When Galen had asked him how he’d managed to get all that information so quickly, Mass had smiled and said, “Little brother, when this is all over, I will sit you down and school you about the power and reach of the Andretti name. Perhaps then you will want to adopt it.”

Mass had informed Galen that he had friends in both Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Department and the National Crime Agency who, from now on, would be posing as employees at the banks where Galen would continue to make his deposits and transfers. And thus a sting operation was born.

Mass had also employed the Andreas’ London-based attorney, a Mr. Cedric Peabody, who’d already set the ball rolling for a paternity test to make sure Galen was indeed Geoffrey’s father before they moved forward. He’d promised Galen that it was all covert, and that as long as Galen kept up the charade, he should have Geoffrey and his life back very soon.

His brother had stayed for a week, meeting with him in the bank every day to keep him abreast of Geoffrey’s case, and just to lend moral support. Mass had been his ray of hope.

Three weeks later, the entire Fraser family was behind bars, and Geoffrey was out of Bronzefield and in Galen’s arms. Come tomorrow, his son would have a brand new birth certificate with Galen named as father, Luigi added as his middle name, and Carmichael as last name. Galen would be picking up a new birth certificate for himself, as well, with Luciano Luigi Andretti filling the box where Father: Unknown was once recorded. It was a new beginning for father and son. He hoped their relationship would grow in depth and strength as the years rolled by.

Galen’s heart skipped a beat as he recalled the first time he’d seen Geoffrey strapped in a car seat in the back of the car that had brought him from Bronzefield. He remembered the river of hot tears he’d cried, and the instant sense of protectiveness that had washed over him when he’d held his son for the first time. It was the second pinnacle moment in Galen’s life.

That was the power of the Andretti name, Galen thought, as his mind wandered back to a conversation he’d had with Mass before he’d returned to the States to spend Christmas with his family.

“Why?” he’d asked, as they faced each other across the desk in the bank. “Why, after what I did to you? I tried to break up Andretti Industries.”

Massimo chuckled. “You’re an Andretti, little brother, and when one Andretti gets cut, we all bleed. Plus,” he added with a shrug, “I grew to respect you during the case.”

“Respect me?” Galen frowned at his dark haired, blue-eyed half brother, with whom he’d been at war for the better part of their four-year relationship. “I thought you hated me. You were so cold and shrewd, and…awful to me.”

“It was just a show. I was testing your stamina. Your fighting me showed me that you had guts, that you weren’t afraid to take risks and fight for your cause even if you knew the odds were against you. You didn’t shy away. You acted like an Andretti. And that’s when I knew we could be a family. I’ve been waiting for you to call.”

The war between him and his brother was over, and soon Galen would be able to start building a relationship with his son. He’d be free to go back to Granite Falls, and Mindy.

“I owe you so much, Mass,” he said in a hoarse voice. “I’ve said it a thousand times since you came to my rescue, but I’ll say it again. I’m sorry for the trouble I caused you. I will find a way to make it up to you. I’m in your debt. Anything you need, whatever it is, I’m here for you.”

“Apology accepted, and let’s not talk of it again. Andrettis don’t grovel. All I need is for you to start being my brother. Sign this, Mr. Fredrick Fraser,” he said, sliding a form toward Galen, reminding him that they were still keeping up appearances even though Galen’s “bodyguard” hadn’t accompanied him to the bank today.

Galen signed the form and slid it back to Mass. “I want that, too.”

“Good to know we’re on the same page.” Mass gave him an encouraging smile and turned back to the computer.”

As Mass typed rapidly on the keyboard, Galen was reminded that his brother, who owned La Banca di Bianchi, one of the biggest banks in Europe, knew exactly what he was doing. His posing as a bank employee was the perfect cover.

Galen’s back went ramrod straight. If the Frasers had known he was related to the owner of La Banca di Bianchi, those bastards might have forced him to help them rip off the London branch. Galen had no idea if that would have played in or out of his favor. It could have totally annihilated his relationship with Mass who already thought him a gold digger. On the other hand, it might have also raised suspicions of brewing trouble and propelled Mass to come to his aid much sooner. Galen would never know. All he knew was that he was grateful to have his brother here with him now.

Mass turned to Galen. “Want to hear something that would cheer you up?”

Galen slanted his eyes. “Cheer me up? I don’t think that’s possible. Not until I hold my son in my arms.”

This will help.” Mass placed his elbows on the desk and leaned closer. “The day our arbitration began, I had my accountants reassess Andretti Industries’ financial state from the day you were born to the day our father died. I had my attorneys set aside half of the earnings and assets of those seventeen years for you. You have more than enough money to start a new business of your own once this fiasco is over.”

“Massimo.” Galen fought back the tears and struggled against his instincts to leap over the desk and hug his brother with unmitigated gratitude. “You make me feel like such a fool for taking you to court.” His voice cracked with emotion he could not display.

Massimo tossed him a professional smile. “Like I said, this would not have happened if you hadn’t fought me. Next account.”

Galen gave him the necessary information for the next transfer, then said, “You have no idea how scared I was to go up against you. But I had nothing to lose, and—”

“Everything to gain,” Mass interjected. “And talking about gain, it would probably be an honor to your grandfather’s memory if you reinvented Carmichael’s Furniture. It was his life’s work.”

“If the judge had ruled in my favor, I would have done just that and left it in the hands of a trusted CEO. I’ve been helping Granddad in the store since I was a teenager, and he always spoke about me taking it over one day. I gently told him that running a furniture business wasn’t my thing. He was disappointed, and since he had no other heirs, he liquidated the company and retired—the best thing he could have done actually. I just wish he’d had more time to enjoy his retirement. He’d worked so hard all his life, only to be robbed of…”

“You must not blame yourself for what happened to your grandfather,” Mass said when Galen choked up. “But if you’re still interested in the CEO plan, I have a long list of clients you can tap into.”

Galen shook his head. “I can’t. Carmichael’s Furniture is now associated with high crime and money laundering.” He spread his hands and smirked. “I mean, I’m sitting here transferring ill-gotten money from my family’s company to the bank accounts of criminals across the continent. Once the story breaks, everyone will think me a heartless bastard who stole from my grandfather and caused his death. I appreciate all your help, and I look forward to being under your tutelage when I decide what I want to do with my life. But for right now, I just want to concentrate on bonding with my son once I get him, and to be available for whatever he needs, whenever he needs it.” That, and winning Mindy back.

“Do you plan to stay in England?”

“After what those people did to my name, I wouldn’t be able to get a job as a street cleaner in this country, anywhere in Europe for that matter.”

“You’re an Andretti. You don’t need a job. You just need a company to run, a board to control, and employees to carry out your orders.”

“You make it sound so fun.”

“It is. Why not come back to Granite Falls? You and Geoffrey are welcome to stay with Shaina and me until you figure out your life. Aria, MJ, and Adam’s son, Alex, will all be excited to have another little cousin around.”

“Well, Alex isn’t technically Geoffrey’s cousin.” Galen stated.

“It doesn’t matter. We’re all family. Both Adam and I want our kids to be as close as he and I were as children. We value family ties. You’re my brother, so that includes your children, too.”

“I should have known there was a heart beating under that hard shell you project to the world.”

Massimo raised an eyebrow as he punched some numbers into a calculator. “Our father once told me that if people know you have a heart, they will try to break it. He was talking about the business world of course.” He paused and glanced up at Galen. “We both have daddy issues. Even though it was for different reasons, like you, I was full of anger and resentment towards him, primarily because of the affair he had with your mother. It broke my mother’s heart. You don’t even know the half of it.”

“Mass, I’m sorry. I—”

“No, no.” Mass shook his head emphatically. “I’m not blaming you. I brought it up to explain that I wasn’t always this nice. It took the love and trust of a good woman to change me. What you need is a good woman to love, and who loves you. I’m going out on a limb here and say that you’ve probably found that kind of love with Mindy. She’s a good kid. Admirable in my eyes for sticking beside you even though she knew that it could have cost her her job and ended her friendship with Tashi. She loves you.”

Galen swallowed the raw ache in his throat. “I knew she was special the moment I first saw her. But I screwed it up royally by not being honest with her, not telling her that I’d slept with Trix two and a half years ago. I’d be lucky if she ever speaks to me again. She will never forgive me.”

Massimo hit a key, sending documents to the printer behind him. “If she loves you, she will forgive you anything. You know my story with Shaina, how for years she blamed me for her father’s death and all the hardship she and Cameron encountered in the ensuing years. Once she heard my side of the story—the truth—she sided with me against her own brother, who wasn’t as anxious to forgive.”

“Shaina’s conflict with you began years before you became a couple. I cheated on Mindy. You never cheated on Shaina.”

Mass made a guttural sound in his throat. “If the thought even crosses my mind—not that it ever will—I won’t be around to talk about it, or even to deny it. Listen, we are powerless to the women we love, and they know it, but they also know that we’re not perfect, that we’re downright stupid sometimes. When we humble ourselves, kneel in front of them, lay our heads in their laps like contrite little boys confessing our inadequacies, they are more likely to forgive us than when we act all machismo. You have to be humble and gentle, yet persistent when Mindy tries to put more distance between you.”

“It wouldn’t be easy telling her that I’d been with another woman while we were together.”

“No. But you didn’t sleep with Trix intentionally either. You were upset and vulnerable when you went to see her. She drugged you and then took advantage of you. Your only transgression was not telling Mindy.”

“I chose not to believe anything happened that night because I couldn’t remember anything happening.”

Massimo reached behind him and collected the documents from the printer. He glanced them over judiciously signed them in the necessary places, and then handed them to Galen. “You couldn’t remember because of the drugs. Geoffrey is proof that it happened,” he said, while Galen signed his fake name on each one. “Mindy will think that you had no intention of ever telling her. Therein lies your ultimate betrayal. She will be crushed. Her heart will be broken even more than it already is. If you want her back, you will have to fight like a dog to prove that you deserve a second chance, that you deserve her heart, her trust, and her love. Don’t downplay what you did wrong, which was not telling her, but do up-play the fact that it would not have happened if you weren’t upset, inebriated, and drugged.”

As Galen now thought about that night, upset was a far cry from what he’d felt when his aunt had fed him that despicable lie about his parents—the lie his mother had concocted to hide the real story behind her affair with a married man and explain away the pregnancy that resulted from it.

During the arbitration, when witness after witness came forward to attest to Massimo’s mother’s character, Galen had begun to doubt his mother’s story. Giuliana Andretti was portrayed as a kind, sweet, soft-spoken woman, and there was not one shred of evidence that she’d ordered her husband to abandon his child. Moreover, legal documents had been presented that indubitably proved that it was Luciano’s sole decision to order Judith and her unborn bastard back to England.

Former and current employees of Andretti Industries, including Mindy’s mother, Pamela, had portrayed Judith Carmichael—the then personal secretary to Luciano Andretti—as a manipulative, delusional woman who wanted Giuliana’s life. No wonder Pamela Marshall didn’t like him, Galen thought, as he fought to temper the shame of his mother’s actions that had been dumped upon him. When more character witnesses swore under oath that Luciano was indeed in love with his wife and was heartbroken when she died, Galen’s faith in his mother’s character took a quantum leap south.

If Luciano had truly loved Judith, after his wife’s untimely death, he would surely have brought her back to America and made a life with her and his son. Why hadn’t he connected the dots before he’d begun the arbitration and embarrassed himself in the eyes of the handful of people who now saw him as nothing but a gold-digging son of a bitch—just like his mother?

Galen pulled his car into the front entrance of Hotel Andreas, dropped a hefty tip into the valet tray and hopped out. He strode through the automatic doors, crossed the expansive elaborate foyer, and headed for the elevators. As he rode up to the penthouse suite, he wished he’d been more aggressive with questions about his father before his mother’s death, five years ago. Now, he might never know the real story.

Perhaps he didn’t want to know.

Galen opened the door to his suite and stepped inside. Intense happiness immediately filled him at the sight of Geoffrey sitting on the floor surrounded by building blocks, rubbery creatures, pop-up books, and his trains—his favorite toys—and Sybil, his nanny, making funny noises as she mimicked the choo-choo sounds of trains moving along a track.

Galen hated to interrupt his child’s play, but he hadn’t seen him for hours, which felt like months since he’d only had the opportunity to hold him for the first time a few weeks ago. And today Geoffrey had become his, only his. He walked over and picked up his son, hugging him tightly. “Geoffrey, my boy, my little baby boy. You’re mine. You’re all mine,” he crooned as he buried his face in his neck and lost himself in his baby scent for a few loving moments. He would die a thousand deaths and kill ten thousand foes for his son.

He loosened his hug when Geoffrey began to whine and struggle. “How has he been?” he asked the twenty-two-year-old brunette who’d once worked in the hotel’s nursery, but who had been assigned as Geoffrey’s nanny since he’d been released from Bronzefield. She was quite responsible for her age and both he and Geoffrey depended on her.

“He’s been jolly good, actually. Ate his supper and enjoyed his bath.”

“That’s Daddy’s boy,” Galen said, kissing Geoffrey on his chubby cheeks.

His heart melted when his son wound his arms around his neck and said, “Daddy. Boy. Daddy. Good boy.”

Galen closed his eyes as mounting joy flooded his being. “Yes, Geoffrey. You’re Daddy’s good boy. Always and forever.”

“He’s getting used to you. Didn’t cry for his mum that much today. I still can’t understand how his mum could just up and walk out on him, and you, Mr. Carmichael. You’re both so sweet.”

Galen stared at Sybil. She obviously had no idea what she was talking about when it came to Trix’s and his relationship. Neither Geoffrey nor he needed anyone’s pity for something neither of them had done, nor could change even if they wanted to. It was nobody’s business that the mother of his child would spend the rest of her life in prison, and so to stave off questions and speculations about his personal life he’d simply told Sybil and everyone else who’d asked that Geoffrey’s mother had abandoned him.

He couldn’t very well be broadcasting the truth he wanted to stay hidden until Geoffrey was old enough to understand it. There was only one woman on this planet with whom Galen intended to share the gory details of his story, and she wasn’t standing in front of him at the moment.

“Have you had supper? I can order up something from the restaurant. What do you fancy?”

Galen smiled at Sybil’s concerns for him. Once he’d made up his mind to move back to the States, he’d asked her to accompany him—just for a few months. It would be good for Geoffrey to have at least one familiar face in a strange place when he himself couldn’t be with him. Sybil had agreed, even before he was finished making his case. She had just broken up with her boyfriend and was looking for a change, a new start, she’d stated. “Didn’t you tell me you had plans with friends later tonight?” he asked.

“I did, but—”

“You should spend as much time as possible with your friends and family before we leave.” He hadn’t had supper, and he wasn’t hungry. He just wanted to be alone with his thoughts and his son. “It will be months before you see them again.”

“I don’t mind staying home and taking care of Geoffrey while you attend to business. It’s my job.” Sybil pointed at a desk across the room. “Your phone has been ringing off the hook. You have lots of messages.”

Galen suspected that most of the calls were from the authorities and his solicitor as they worked to clear his name and wrap up loose ends concerning the Frasers. Now that the nightmare was over, Galen felt no pressure to immediately respond to the messages nor the many emails he knew were waiting in his inbox. Not tonight anyway since it has only been a few hours that Trix signed the papers giving him full custody of Geoffrey, and permission to take him out of the country. That was cause for celebration. “I insist you go out, Sybil. I’m taking the night off from work. Geoffrey and I will be fine.”

“Alright, Mr. Carmichael. See you in the morning, then.”

As Sybil headed for her bedroom, Galen thought of Mindy, who’d been twenty-one years old when he’d first met her. Unlike Sybil, she was already grown up and taking care of two children on her own. Pregnant the first time at sixteen, the poor girl never had a chance to enjoy her youth. When girls her age had been out partying, going to movies, concerts, and pubs, as Sybil was getting ready to do, Mindy had been at home changing diapers and rocking her babies to sleep.

Galen walked over to the side of the room overlooking the busy London street below, vowing in his heart to find a way to give Mindy the experience of recapturing her lost teenage years, to expose her to the thrill of being childfree and carefree for a while.

He was grateful to Mass for giving him the means to fight for her, to be the kind of man she deserves—a man who could provide for her, take care of her, and give her the world, the moon, and the stars if those were the things she wanted from him.

“Mummy. Bear. Mummy,” Geoffrey cried, reaching for a brown teddy bear sitting on the sofa—a parting gift from his mother.

Galen walked over and picked it up. “Here you go, son. Here’s your mummy’s bear.”

Geoffrey tossed the bear to the floor. “No. Mummy. Mummy.” He began to cry and struggle.

Galen held him close. “I’m sorry, Geoff. You mummy is away on holiday.” Galen’s stomach burned with regret as he spoke the first of many lies about his mother his son would hear from him. “Daddy is here, little chap. Daddy will always be here for you.” That was no lie.

Galen hugged Geoffrey close to his heart and sobbed quietly for a plethora of reasons.

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