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Closer To You | Excerpt

PROLOGUE

Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland

 

Seamus Donelan rubbed his tired eyes as he looked up from his computer. It was almost ten, well past time to call it a night and go home. The university's janitorial staff would be in to clean his office soon. He needed to leave and let them do their work, but returning to his empty apartment would only remind him of how alone he was and how long he'd been alone.

When he'd been younger, caught up in his ambitions, inventions, and patents, home had been the last place he'd wanted to be. To change the world, he had to live in that world—all over that world. He'd traveled for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. He'd told himself he'd had a higher purpose, one that would benefit millions of people. But his family hadn't seen it that way.

One day he'd come home and his wife and two daughters were gone. Tricia had taken his girls back to the States, to her parents' home in San Francisco, to the city she'd grown up in. Yes, they'd had a bitter fight the night before, but he'd never imagined she'd leave him in such an abrupt and brutal way. She hadn't even called him on the phone. Instead, she'd left him a letter reminding him of how many times she'd warned him and pleaded with him to put their family first; he didn't remember hearing one damn word.

The truth was that he hadn't been listening. He'd been caught up in his passions and his ego, his belief that he deserved everything that he desired. He'd been living in a cloud, confident that he could have it all, that he could walk above and over everyone else, and that no one would ever get hurt.

A lot of people had gotten hurt—especially his daughters—and that was a pain he would never be able to let go.

With a sigh, he got up from his chair and stretched his arms above his head. He felt more tired than he had in a long time. He'd thought teaching would rejuvenate him, but the young minds he saw every day in his classroom only reminded him that his youth had passed. He had done more than most men in science. His legacies would live beyond him—all but one of his inventions. That one had to be hidden away—forever.

He walked across the room. On the coffee table in front of the brown leather couch was a large box he'd started packing earlier in the day. Three months ago, he'd promised the young and brilliant scientist Ian Callaway that he'd send him his great-grandfather's earliest science journals, and tomorrow he would do that.

He hadn't meant to take so long, but things had come up, and he'd hesitated over asking Ian for a favor in return. Finally, he'd written Ian a long note. He hoped Ian would come through for him. But only time would tell.

A creaking door and a footfall down the hall suddenly got his heart pounding. His office door was locked, but he was very aware of how alone he was in the building.

It was probably just the cleaning service, he told himself, but he wasn't convinced. Too many odd things had happened lately. He thought he'd covered his tracks, but now he had the terrible feeling that his old life was catching up with his new one.

A shadow appeared outside the frosted glass of his office door. He could see nothing more than the silhouette of a man, a man working on the door lock. He didn't have much time. 

He ran over to his desk and opened the locked drawer with shaky hands.

He grabbed what he needed and then moved back across the room. He placed the item carefully inside the box he was sending to Ian, hidden away under the journals, and the small package addressed to Grace. Then he closed the box, quickly wound the packing tape around it and dumped it through the postal service drop slot in the wall behind his couch. Hopefully, it would go out in the morning no matter what happened tonight.

The door burst open behind him. Before he could turn around, something hard came down on his head. An explosion of pain ran through him, as well as a feeling of terror.

He'd tried to stay away from evil, but sometimes science led to the dark as well as the light.

He fought to stay awake; he had a feeling if he didn't, he'd never see the light of day again…

 

One

San Francisco, California

 

“If you don't come to Thanksgiving, Ian, we're bringing Thanksgiving to you,” Kate Callaway said, the fierce light in her blue eyes matched by the same gleam in her twin sister Mia's eyes.

Ian frowned as he ran a hand through his hair and stared at his younger sisters, who'd unexpectedly appeared at his apartment. He'd pulled an all-nighter at the lab and had gotten home and to bed a little before five a.m. “What time is it?”

“It's three o'clock in the afternoon,” Kate replied, pushing her way past him. A confident, athletic, blue-eyed blonde, Kate never waited to be invited into a room. “You were supposed to be at Mom's an hour ago.”

“You look exhausted,” Mia commented, as she followed her twin sister inside.

Mia was also blonde with blue eyes, but she was softer than Kate, more artistic, more nurturing, and usually less of a pain in the ass. But the two of them together had always spelled trouble for him.

“What have you been doing?” Mia continued, giving him a thoughtful look.

“Or should we say who have you been doing?” Kate asked with a wicked sparkle in her eyes. “Is there someone here? Is that why you look like you just got out of bed?”

“No. I'm alone, and I've been working. I had to get a project done before the holiday weekend.”

“Did you make it?” Mia asked.

“Barely. What are you two doing here?”

“Mom sent us to get you,” Kate replied. “She wasn't sure you'd make it over there on your own.”

“I'm coming, but I need to take a shower and change first.”

“That does seem like a good idea,” Kate said, wrinkling her nose at him.

“Then why don't you let me get to it?” He waved them back toward the door. “We'll catch up later.”

“Promise you'll come, Ian,” Mia said, worry in her eyes. “We hardly ever get to talk to you anymore now that I'm living in Angel's Bay and Kate is in DC. I barely heard anything about your trip to Ireland. I know you met with some famous scientist, but what else happened?”

“It was all good.”

Mia sighed.

Kate rolled her eyes and said, “Surely you can do better than that.”

“I'll fill you both in tonight,” he promised. “Just give me a chance to pull myself together.”

“We can wait for you and give you a ride to the house,” Kate offered.

His gaze narrowed. “Hang on a second. Did you two come here to get me or to avoid having to help Mom make dinner for thirty-seven people?”

“It's forty-one this year, with all the new spouses and babies,” Mia corrected.

“And Mom is acting like a drill sergeant,” Kate put in. “I already set all the tables.”

“And I made three pies,” Mia put in.

“We needed a break,” Kate added.

He smiled. “No wonder you volunteered to come and get me.”

“We also wanted to make sure you were coming,” Mia said. “That part was true.”

“What about the men in your lives? Where are they?”

“Jeremy took Ashlyn and some of the other kids to the beach,” Mia said, referring to her new husband and stepdaughter. “So they are safely out of Mom's crossfire.”

“And Devin is visiting an old friend in the city,” Kate said, mentioning her boyfriend. “He'll meet us at the house in a while.”

“So you and Devin are still going strong?”

“We are,” Kate said with a sparkling smile. “Devin moved his investigative services to DC so I could continue to work out of the FBI field office there. We're both busy doing our own thing, but when we come home, we're together. I wasn't sure I could have a career and love, but it turns out I can.”

“Of course you can,” Mia said. “You just had to find the right person to share your life, and you did. I can't wait to stand up for you at your wedding. Trust me, marriage is amazing.”

“Did you set a date?” he asked Kate, running a hand through his hair. “Did I miss that?”

“No, right now we're happy to just be together. A wedding is down the road.”

He was happy for both of his younger sisters but also reminded that he hadn't thought about love in a very long time. Work had quite simply taken over his life. He knew that had to change. His grandmother had sent him all the way to Ireland to talk to Seamus Donelan, a former scientist turned professor, who should have served as a cautionary tale, because the brilliant Seamus had lost his entire family after putting all of his focus on work.

He had thought about making some changes in his life after that trip, but then he had gotten unexpected funding for a research project he was involved in, which had led to a whirlwind three months of work. He couldn't believe it was already Thanksgiving, with Christmas not too far off. He would take the break he'd promised himself starting on Monday, but for now he needed to shower off his week-long work binge and get ready for a Callaway Thanksgiving.

“Look, as much as I'd like to be your escape hatch,” he said dryly, “I'd prefer it if you two left now. If you're committed to staying out of the house, you could always go chase down Dylan or Hunter,” he added, referring to his two brothers.

“They're already at the house. And Annie is on her way,” Kate replied, referencing their other sister.

“We'll go,” Mia said, dragging Kate toward the door. “But be there by four, Ian, or we'll send more Callaways to strong-arm you.”

“Don't worry. I'll be there. I'm starving.”

Kate laughed. “There will be four perfectly roasted turkeys, so you should be able to satisfy that appetite.”

As he opened the door, he was surprised to see a delivery man walking down the hall with a large box in his hands. He hadn't rung anyone in, and he lived in a very secure building—at least most days.

“Ian Callaway?” the man said.

He nodded.

“Sign here.”

He scrawled his name on the electronic device, then said, “I didn't know you delivered on the holidays.”

“Every day this time of year.”

“How did you get into the building?”

“One of your neighbors let me in. Have a good day.”

“A delivery on Thanksgiving?” Kate queried, a thoughtful gleam in her eyes. “What is it?”

“No idea.”

“Do you want us to wait while you open it? You seem a little bothered at the delivery man's presence,” Kate noted.

“I don't need an FBI agent to help me open a box. I just don't appreciate it when my neighbors ring people in.”

“What kind of work are you doing these days?” Kate asked.

He could see the beginning of a long line of questions in her gaze. “We'll catch up at dinner.”

“You never want to talk about what you do.”

“It's boring science stuff. At least, that's what the two of you used to say about my projects.”

Mia laughed. “He's got us there, Kate.”

“See you at the house.” 

After his sisters left, he locked the door and set the box down on his dining room table. When he saw the address from Ireland, his worry eased.

The package was from Seamus Donelan. Seamus had told him that he had journals from Ian's great-grandfather, who'd been Seamus's high school teacher and one of his first science mentors. He'd promised to send them along when they'd met in Ireland in the summer.

He ripped open the box. Sure enough, there were at least a dozen old leather journals, as well as a thick envelope labeled miscellaneous. There was also a sealed smaller box with the name Grace O'Malley scrawled across the brown packaging and an address. Lastly, he pulled out a folded piece of paper with his name on it.

Ian, I hope this note finds you healthy and happy and that you've taken some time to slow down. As we talked about during your visit, there is so much more to life than work. Don't make the same mistake I did. Don't lose everything in your quest for the biggest breakthrough the science world has yet to see. Many have come before you; many will come after you. Live your life, find love, be at peace.

I have sent you your great-grandfather's journals. I hope they inspire you as they did me. I also have a favor to ask you. I saw that you are attending the Science Summit in South Lake Tahoe next week. My youngest daughter Grace lives there. I have tried to send her things before, but she always returns them unopened. I think if you delivered the enclosed box to her personally, she might accept it.

I'm sure this is the last thing you want to do, but I hope you will consider granting me this wish. If not, I have put her address on the box. At the very least, perhaps you could drop it off at the mailbox. You'll note that Grace's last name is O'Malley. She took her mother's name after the divorce. It broke my heart, but what could I say? I'd made my choice, and she'd made hers.

Thank you so much for your consideration.

Seamus

Ian set the letter down with a frown. The last thing he wanted to do was track down Seamus's angry and estranged daughter in Tahoe, but he was going there on Monday, and Seamus had been nice enough to send the journals, so how could he say no? He didn't like to owe people. Someone did a favor for him; he returned it.

He'd do the drop-off in person, and if Grace didn't want whatever her father had sent her, she could ship it back to him.

In the meantime, he had Thanksgiving to get to.

 

* * *

 

An hour later, Ian arrived at his mother's house in San Francisco. He'd grown up in the large two-story house that sat on a street parallel to the Great Highway, directly across from the beach, and visiting always brought back good memories. At thirty-two, he was the second oldest of six kids. His brother Dylan had beat him by a year. Then came Hunter, Annie, and the twins Kate and Mia.

His mom had taken time off from her nursing career when they were small, but even when she'd gone back to work, she'd always been there for whatever they needed. His dad was a retired firefighter, who now worked some construction jobs for his Uncle Kevin when his workload got busy. Both his brothers were firefighters, having followed in his father's footsteps. Firefighting was a Callaway tradition for generations, but he had never had any interest in pursuing that career. It had always been science for him.

His sisters had also chosen different career options. Annie was a graphic designer and artist, while Mia's penchant for art history had led her into running an art gallery in the small coastal town of Angel's Bay, where she'd found the love of her life and an adorable stepdaughter. Kate had become an FBI agent two years ago and loved being in the center of the action.

It had been awhile since he'd seen all of his family in one place. And, of course, it wouldn't be just his immediate family, but all the Callaway relatives who were in town. His Uncle Jack and Aunt Lynda and their tribe of eight would be there, all of whom were now married or involved with someone, many with kids or babies on the way. His Uncle Kevin and Aunt Monica would also be present with more of his cousins, and there might possibly be some relatives from his Aunt Elaine's family who were Coulters, not Callaways, but just as loved.

“Ian,” Emma said, giving him a hug. A sparkling, attractive blonde fire investigator, Emma had recently become one of his favorite cousins after their trip to Ireland, where he'd gotten a chance to get to know her better.

“How are you?” he asked.

“I'm good. I'm so glad you came. I wanted to tell you something. It's about the little girl we met in Kenmare.”

“Shannon?” he queried, remembering the freckle-faced, redhead with the toothy smile who'd taken an instant liking to Emma and Max.

“Yes,” she said with a happy nod. “It's taken us three months, but Max and I finally located her biological father. It took some doing, because he went under a different last name than the one Maeve gave us. Anyway, he lives in a small town in Texas. He's married and has a couple of children. I've spoken to him on the phone, and he said he was stunned to hear that he even had a child. Apparently, Shannon's mother never told him about the child, who was a product of a one-night stand. Max and I are going to fly to Texas to see him tomorrow.”

“Really?” he asked in surprise. “Why?”

“Because Shannon's great-grandmother's health is worsening by the minute, and Maeve is extremely worried about Shannon being put into foster care.”

“Isn't there anyone closer who can help out?”

“There's really not. And our grandmother is worried about Maeve and Shannon, and you know I can't say no to helping Grandma.”

He had to admit he had trouble with that himself. “I get it.”

“It will be a quick trip. I'm hoping that Shannon's father will turn out to be a good guy who wants to raise her. Maeve hates the thought of Shannon going to strangers, and so do I.”

“That's quite a hope.” He wasn't at all convinced anyone was going to get the miracle they were looking for. “But can I just say there was probably a reason why Shannon's mother never told him she was pregnant?”

Emma's smile dimmed. “I've thought that as well, especially when there was a name change, but Max has run a preliminary check on him, and nothing came up. He's not a criminal but that doesn't necessarily make him a good guy.”

“If he is her father, doesn't he have a legal obligation to take her? What if you find out he isn't a good guy, but he wants her? Does he get her?”

Emma sighed. “I don't know. I don't want to get into all the legal stuff yet. I just want her dad to be great and to want to raise her. Every child should feel that love from their parent. Anyway, I guess I'll find out this weekend, and we'll take it from there. How's your work going? Have you put your plan of slowing down your life into motion?”

“Not yet, but I'm about to. I'm heading up to the mountains on Monday.”

“For skiing?”

“Yes, and also for a science and technology conference.”

Emma gave him a frown. “Ian, that is not a vacation; that's work.”

“It's a little of both.”

“I hope so. You know what that Irish professor told you about letting ambition overwhelm your personal life.”

“I do, and I agree in principle. I actually just got the journals Professor Donelan had promised to send me when we spoke this summer. I'm excited to see what kind of science our great-grandfather was interested in when he was alive.”

“Grandma will be happy about that. You should tell her.”

“I will. Is she here?”

“In the den. She's having an okay day; she's a little tired. To be honest, I think she's depressed about Maeve's condition. They grew up like sisters and being back in Ireland with her a few months ago made her feel closer to her again. Now, she's feeling the sadness and pain of Maeve's illness.”

“I'll go say hello.”

“I'll catch up with you later.”

As Emma disappeared into the other room, his older brother Dylan approached and gave him a slap on the back. Like most of the Callaway men, Dylan had dark hair and blue eyes, same as Ian. Dylan was stockier in build, however, and while Ian prided himself on being fit, Dylan probably had a few notches on him in that department, too. But then Dylan spent his days as an active firefighter, while he had to get to a gym and an elliptical to get his heart rate up. 

“Glad you made it,” Dylan said. “It's been awhile.”

He nodded, noting the weariness in his brother's eyes. “You look tired.”

“Just got off a shift,” Dylan replied, running a hand through his hair.

“Busy night?” 

“Extremely. I'll catch up on my sleep during my upcoming turkey coma,” he joked. “And don't give me some scientific reason why turkey doesn't cause sleepiness. I don't want to hear it. You already ruined Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny for me.”

He was very aware that he'd ruined a lot of his siblings' beliefs with unwanted scientific evidence. It had taken him a long time to learn how to shut up and let them believe what they wanted to. “You were at least seven before I told you the truth about Santa,” he said. “Well past the age where you needed to believe in an old man with a belly full of jelly and a sack full of presents.”

Dylan grinned. “So are you killing any woman's dreams these days?”

“Not in some time,” he said dryly. “Too busy to date.”

“Too busy for sex? Seriously?”

“I didn't say sex; I said dating.”

“If those two aren't the same, you're doing it wrong. By the way, I'm heading down to Newport Beach on Saturday. I'm meeting up with Jeff. Any chance you want to come along?”

Jeff had been Dylan's best friend growing up and had spent a lot of time at their house. “That sounds fun, but I'm going to Tahoe on Monday for a conference.”

“Now, that doesn't sound fun,” Dylan teased. “Don't you ever relax, Ian?”

The question was becoming a popular refrain among his family members. “I'm going to hit the slopes while I'm there.”

“I would hope so. You know what you should do?”

“What?” he asked warily.

“You should take the Mustang up to Tahoe.”

“The car you've spent the past year restoring? You're volunteering to lend it to me?”

“When is the last time you drove something other than a slow sedan? Take it up to the mountains, have some fun.”

“There's snow in the forecast.”

“She can handle the snow. There's nothing better for relaxing than a long drive in a fast car.”

He wasn't surprised that was Dylan's viewpoint. His brother had been obsessed with cars since he was five.

“Seriously,” Dylan added. “I won't take no for an answer. Come by tomorrow and get the keys.”

“All right,” he said with a shrug. He actually wouldn't mind leaving his car behind. It was due for some maintenance, and he hadn't had time to get it done. He could drop it off at the shop before he headed to Tahoe.

“Good. Finally, you're willing to take my advice.”

He laughed as his younger brother Hunter came up to join them. Hunter's hair was a lighter shade of brown, and his eyes a lighter blue. As usual, he hadn't considered Thanksgiving an opportunity to wear anything other than faded jeans and a T-shirt. 

“What advice are we talking about?” Hunter asked. “Women? Did Dylan tell you about the groupie who's stalking him?”

“No,” he said, now wondering if there was more behind the shadows in his brother's eyes than work weariness.

“She's not stalking me,” Dylan said with annoyance. “She just brought me cookies as a thank-you for saving her life.”

“And she gave you her phone number.” Hunter turned to Ian. “And she's totally hot. Blonde hair, nice rack, legs for days—”

“Okay, that's enough,” Dylan said, giving Hunter a sharp look. “She was the victim of a fire. I don't take advantage of vulnerable women.”

“I was joking. Why are you so touchy?” Hunter asked, giving Dylan a speculative look. “Wait a second, you don't like her, do you?”

“I'm not touchy; I'm tired. I'm going to get a drink.”

“What's wrong with him?” Ian asked as Dylan took off down the hall.

“Don't know,” Hunter said with a shrug. “But he's been off his game a week now. What's new with you? Did you win a Nobel Prize yet?”

“Not yet. You break any bones lately?” Hunter currently held the record in the family, having broken his left arm twice, his right leg, a wrist, some bones in his foot, and a couple of fingers. While one of those injuries had come on the job as a firefighter, the rest had come from his physically adventurous off-duty activities like helicopter skiing and rock climbing.

“Not one. I'm in a dry spell,” Hunter joked. “Too much work, not enough play.”

“Ian,” his mother Sharon said, interrupting them with a happy smile. A short redhead with a warm and sparkling smile, his mom had always lit up a room. She gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Now I'm happy. All my kids are home.”

“I haven't seen Annie yet,” he said.

“She just got here. She's outside, I think. I want to talk to you, Ian. It's been some time since we've had a one-on-one chat.”

By the determined gleam in her eye, he had a feeling that chat was going to include some strong words about taking a day off and calling home more often.

“I think you're in trouble,” Hunter joked. “She's looking at you like she did when you used her crystal wine glasses to run a science experiment.”

“He's not in trouble,” Sharon said, her gaze narrowing on his face. “At least I hope not, but we do need to catch up.”

“I'd love to do that.”

“Good. But it will have to wait,” his mother continued. “It's time for dinner. The dining room is for the older generation. You can both grab seats at the tables in the den or on the back patio.”

“We're still at the kids' table?” Hunter complained. “It's not so bad for me, Mom, but Ian is an old man.”

“I'm one year older than you.”

“Feels like a lot more.” Hunter grinned back at him. “Let's go find seats closest to the buffet table.”

“You got it.”

As they entered the den, he saw his cousins picking seats at various tables. There were a lot of couples now and kids, too. It felt strange to still be very single even though he had Dylan and Hunter to hang with, and Annie, too. But seeing the former rebel of the family, Aiden, with a wife and two kids made him realize how quickly time was passing. He'd put his work before everything else and it was going well, but one of these days he might want to have a personal life. He might not want to end up like Seamus Donelan who'd lost his wife and two daughters to ambition. It was just hard to stop doing what he knew how to do to explore a personal relationship. He'd always been better with facts than feelings. But his IQ was off the charts. He could figure out how to do both, couldn't he?

 

Two

 

The kids were tired and cranky. As Grace O'Malley surveyed her second grade class a little before three on Monday afternoon, she was thrilled to see the minutes ticking away toward the three o'clock bell. While theoretically the children should have been recharged after the Thanksgiving holiday, most of them had eaten too much sugar and not gotten enough sleep, thereby making for a rough Monday. The fact that the weather outside was also dark and gloomy with a big snowstorm in the forecast didn't help.

“So, tomorrow,” she said, holding up a kid's book in her hand, “we're going to be reading Madeline's Christmas Miracle together and talking about our holiday plans. I also want you to come in with a couple of ideas for projects you might like to do for the school-wide science fair next week. It's going to be a lot of fun.” She gave them all a smile. “Everyone get some good sleep tonight and come back tomorrow rested and ready to work. Okay?”

Some of the kids nodded; a few yawned. She took that as a win.

The bell rang, and with a sudden burst of renewed energy, the children jumped up and bolted from the room. Only one lingered behind, seven-year-old Tyler Stark. Tyler's mother, Carrie, was a fifth-grade teacher at the school and one of Grace's best friends. Tyler often stayed after school to help her straighten up the classroom until his mom was ready to go home, which was usually closer to half-past three.

Grace liked Tyler a lot. He was an eager, intelligent, curious child with blond hair and hazel eyes. He loved to read and often begged her for one of the books from the classroom to take home with him.

“Can I read Madeline's Christmas Miracle tonight and bring it in tomorrow?” he asked eagerly. “I promise I won't forget. I really want to read it.”

“We'll all read it together tomorrow.”

“But it's good practice,” he reminded her.

“You can take one of the other books home if you want.”

“I want that one,” he said, a stubborn glint in his eyes. “I need to read that one.”

She was a little surprised by his vehemence. He was such a good-natured kid; she didn't understand his unexpected tone of desperation. “Is something wrong?”

He stared back at her, then slowly shook his head, which wasn't at all convincing.

“Tyler?” she prodded.

Before he could answer, the door opened and Tyler's mom Carrie walked in. A tall, willowy blonde, Carrie looked unusually pale and stressed. Now, she was worried about Carrie, too.

“Everything okay?” she asked quietly.

“Sure,” Carrie said, a stressed note in her voice. “Tyler, honey, I need to talk to Grace alone for a minute. We'll be right outside, okay?”

“Okay,” Tyler said.

Grace followed Carrie into the hall, feeling very uneasy. “What's going on?”

Carrie drew in a breath. “I just got a call from Kevin's commanding officer. His unit was ambushed.”

“Oh, no,” she said, horrified at the news. Carrie's husband Kevin was in the Army.

“Kevin was injured. He's alive, but his condition is serious. He's being flown to the base in Germany. I don't know any more details than that. I have to get to him as soon as I can.”

“Of course you do.”

“I checked on flights. I can get on a plane leaving from Reno at seven tonight. I should be able to beat the storm. But I can't take Tyler with me, and my parents are in Florida until Christmas. I don't have anyone to watch Tyler.”

“I'll watch him,” she said immediately.

“Are you sure? I don't know how long I'll be gone.”

“It doesn't matter. I'm happy to do it. You need to be with your husband.”

Relief flooded her eyes. “Thank you. I have to tell Tyler I'm leaving, but I don't know what to say. He's been worrying all weekend about whether his dad will make it home for Christmas. It's been a long year, Grace. Now this…” She battled against tears. “I have to hold it together.”

“You will.” She gave Carrie a hug. “And don't worry about Tyler. We are best buds. We'll be fine.”

“He does love you a lot.”

“I'm crazy about him, too.” She opened the classroom door, and they walked back inside.

“I have to go away for a few days,” Carrie told her son, putting on a happy face for him.

“Can I come?” Tyler asked quickly.

Carrie shook her head. “No, I'm sorry, honey, not on this trip.”

“Why do you have to leave?” Tyler whined. “Are you going to be gone as long as Daddy?”

“No, just a few days, and then I'll be back. While I'm away, you're going to stay with Grace, okay?”

“Okay. But will you and Daddy be back before Christmas?”

Grace's heart broke at the plea in his voice. She could see Carrie trying hard not to cry.

“I will definitely be here for Christmas,” Carrie said, giving him a hug.

“What about Daddy?”

“We'll have to see. I know he wants to be,” Carrie said, avoiding a promise she might not be able to keep. “You'll be good for Grace, won't you?”

Tyler nodded, but there was more worry in his eyes now.

“Good.” Carrie looked at Grace. “I'll take him home, pack a bag and then drop him off at your house. It will be easier for you to be in your own place.”

“I could come over to your house,” she offered.

“No, it's fine. I'll bring him by in about an hour, okay?”

“That's perfect. I'll make dinner for us.” She looked at Tyler's unhappy face and could see the storm clouds gathering in his eyes. “So, Ty, maybe you and I can read Madeline's Christmas Miracle tonight.”

He perked up at her words. “We don't have to wait until tomorrow?”

“Don't tell anyone, but we'll get a head start.”

His smile made her feel better. She didn't know how long she could keep a smile on his face, but she would try as hard as she could to make it last as long as possible.

After Carrie and Tyler left, she quickly straightened her classroom and then headed into the parking lot.

Whitmore Elementary School was located in South Lake Tahoe on the California side of the lake. Surrounded by tall, towering ponderosa pines, with the magnificent Sierra Nevada Mountains behind the building and a view of the lake from the front, the school was one of the prettiest she'd taught at. She'd been there for three years, having moved to the mountains from San Francisco. She'd never been a city girl, and Tahoe suited her far better than the busy streets of San Francisco.

 On her way to the small one-story house on a hill she rented off Pioneer Trail, she stopped at the supermarket and picked up extra food and snacks for her and Tyler. She'd just set her grocery bags on the kitchen counter when the doorbell rang.

She opened the door, expecting to see Carrie and Tyler on her doorstep, but it was a man, a very attractive man with dark-brown hair and striking blue eyes. He wore black jeans that hugged his lean legs and a black wool coat over a dark-blue sweater. There was a package in his hands and a question in his eyes.

“Are you Grace O'Malley?” he asked in a husky male voice that for some reason sent a shiver down her spine.

She didn't know why she was tempted to say no, but some instinct of self-preservation told her the question was more important than she knew. Still, she found it difficult to lie. “I am. Who are you?”

“Ian Callaway. I have something for you from your father.”

Now she knew why she'd suddenly felt uneasy. Even from here, she could see the return address for Waterford, Ireland. She hadn't been back to Ireland in over a decade, and she hadn't seen or talked to her father since then.

“I don't want anything from my dad,” she said firmly.

“He thought you might say that. That's why he sent me. He wanted me to deliver a more personal message. Would it be possible for me to come inside? It's starting to snow.”

She'd been so caught up in the package in his hands that she hadn't realized how quickly the weather had worsened. But was she really going to invite this stranger into her home?

“I promise you I'm not dangerous,” Ian said, as if sensing her reservations. “I'm a scientist. Your father and I are—friends.”

Her gaze narrowed. “That hesitation doesn't sound like you are good friends.”

“More like recent friends. I met him this summer when I visited my family's home in Ireland. My great-grandfather, Donald Rafferty, was one of your father's early teachers.”

She remembered her father talking about his mentor Donald Rafferty, which made her feel marginally better about the stranger on her porch.

A gust of wind blew snow into her face, and she waved him inside. “You've got three minutes.”

“Then I better talk fast,” he said, as he stepped into her house.

PRAISE FOR THE CALLAWAYS

“I loved Aiden and Sara’s story! Barbara manages to write so effortlessly, blending their stories together, so we learn where they have come from to get where they are now. Barbara manages to give us a good glimpse of the rest of the family too, without taking away from Aiden and Sara’s story, leaving us with a little bit of mystery to be followed up on.” Harlequin Junkie for ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS

“I love the Callaways! Heartwarming romance, intriguing suspense and sexy alpha heroes. What more could you want?” NYT Bestselling Author Bella Andre

“I adore the Callaways, a family we’d all love to have. Each new book is a deft combination of emotion, suspense and family dynamics. A remarkable, compelling series!” Barbara O’Neal, author of How to Bake a Perfect Life.

“Once I start reading a Callaway novel, I can’t put it down. Fast-paced action, a poignant love story and a tantalizing mystery in every book!” USA Today Bestselling Author Christie Ridgway

“I really love the Callaways and am looking forward to reading about the rest of the family and unraveling the grandparents’ secret which we’re learning a little more about in each new book. If you’re looking for a great feel good read with a bit of action and mystery, this book is for you!”
The Book Momster

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