The bed was empty, the spread smooth and undisturbed.
He retraced his steps. The bathroom was dark and deserted. He flipped on the closet light switch. The dress Lauryn had worn tonight lay draped across the center island. She’d made it home and changed. That meant the light in the guest room was probably her. He snapped his phone back into the holder.
In an attempt to get her into bed, he’d turned up the heat since that evening she’d come apart in his arms, and this morning he’d left the lab results declaring them both disease-free on her dresser. He’d also tucked a box of condoms in each bedside table and slipped a jeweled condom compact into her purse. Nothing subtle about that.
Had he pushed too far too fast?
Had he driven Lauryn out of their suite?
He made his way to the guest bedroom. Both the room and bed were unoccupied. Light and a tapping sound came from the walk-in closet. Odd. He silently crossed the room and looked through the door. Lauryn knelt on the floor, rapping her knuckles against the floorboards and then pressing each end.
“What are you doing?”
She screamed, sprang to her feet and spun to face him. One hand covered her chest. “You scared me.”
“What are you doing?” he repeated.
Guilt infused her face. She nibbled her bottom lip and hugged her middle. “I’m…I’m looking for a hidden compartment.”
That made no sense. He must have misheard. “What?”
She swept a hand through her hair, looked away and then her gaze returned to his. “This was my mother—my birth- mother’s house. I’m looking for her diaries.”
That made even less sense. “Lauryn, what in the hell are you talking about? Are you drunk?”
But her eyes were clear and she looked steady on her feet. He hadn’t seen her drink anything tonight besides her favorite sparkling water with a twist of lime.
“It’s a long story. One I should have told you before now and I’m sorry that I didn’t. But I didn’t know how.” The look she gave him made the hair on his nape rise. He wasn’t going to like this—whatever this was. “Can we—I need to show you something.”
She walked toward him and squeezed past him through the door. He followed her to their bedroom closet where she pulled out her suitcase, lifted a liner out of the bottom and extracted two file folders and a pile of letters bound neatly together with a string. She pushed them toward him.
The return address on the letters was the same as this estate. No name. Just the initials A. L.
“After my father died I found out I was his child, but not my mother’s. Adrianna Laurence was my birthmother. She met my father when he was stationed in Florida. They had an affair and she became pregnant with me. The letters she wrote to him refer to a hidden compartment in the floor of her bedroom closet where she kept her diary hidden. She wrote, ‘Only you, me and my diary know the truth.’
“I’m hoping to find the diary and read about their affair. Not the intimate stuff. Just the part about me. And why she gave me away.”
He juggled the thoughts bombarding him. There was no way Lauryn could have moved from California to Florida and coincidentally met and married him—the owner of the house her mother had once inhabited. He shifted the folders and saw Adrianna Laurence’s name on one of the tabs and his on the other.
“You set me up?”
She winced. “Not exactly.”
She exhaled slowly as if buying time. “I came to Florida briefly after my father’s funeral. I wanted to meet Adrianna, but she was already dead and she had no living relatives. I asked around and found out the house had been sold. Almost no one would talk to me. Those who did swore she’d never had a child.” She tapped the file folder. “This is all I could find out. It isn’t enough.”
“You want to claim her estate?” He’d heard crazier schemes to get money. But he hadn’t expected such greed from Lauryn. Okay, sure, she’d married him for a million bucks, but he hadn’t noticed her going on any wild spending sprees.
“No. I just want the diary or diaries if there’s more than one. A slew of research hours later I found out you’d bought the Laurence house, and I knew the only way to get what I wanted was through you.”
A sour taste filled his mouth. His stomach churned. “You used me.”
“I guess you could say that. You have to understand, Adam, I’d just lost my father. And it felt like I’d lost my identity, too. The woman I’d called ‘mother’ for twenty-six years wasn’t my mother. My parents’ supposedly perfect marriage was just a sham. My father married Susan, his best friend’s widow, to give me a mother and to give her baby a father. Everything I’d believed in had been a lie. I didn’t—and still don’t—know what’s real and what’s fiction. I need to find out the truth—the real truth, not the fairytale they fed me.”
It was almost too much to comprehend. “You said you were an only child. Was that a lie, too?”
She flinched. “Except for tonight when I told you I wanted to come home and catch up on sleep, I haven’t lied to you except by omission. Susan’s baby was stillborn. She and my father never had any other children.”
“Why play out this charade? Why not just tell me what you wanted?”
“Oh please, this whole story is preposterous. Would you have believed me?”
She must have read his answer on his face. She continued, “When I was researching you I came across Estate’s Web site, and I saw the job posting for an accountant. It seemed like fate. I’m a qualified CPA and I wanted to spend some time in Florida. So I sent you my résumé. Both it and references are real and verifiable.
“I thought once you and I got to know each other, once you had a chance to discover I’m not some crackpot, I could explain the situation and make my request. But it didn’t work out that way. We saw each other at most two hours a week and that was always with other employees around.”
He remembered her stipulation. She’d said she’d marry him, but only if they lived here. “You married me to get into this house.”
“The marriage was your idea. You approached me.”
True. “But the house is what cinched the deal.”
“Yes. That and the chance to meet Helene Ainsley and anyone else who might have known my mother.”
Lauryn had hunted him down and she’d lied to him.
Lies by omission were still lies and potentially damaging. Look at the havoc his father’s affair had wreaked on his family. On Cassie.
“What would you have done if I hadn’t proposed?”
“I was trying to work up my courage to approach you, but I was afraid that if I did and you said no, I’d be at a dead end with nowhere else to turn. My questions would never be answered.”
She lifted a hand as if to touch his arm, but he backed out of reach. He couldn’t let the chemistry between them cloud his judgment.
“Adam, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I just…I didn’t know how.”
Anger, confusion, disappointment and a sense of foolishness for being duped warred within him. He felt betrayed. Used.
He wanted to walk away from Lauryn, but dissolving the marriage after only a week would ruin all of his plans. For the council seat. For a larger stake in Garrison, Inc.
But could he trust Lauryn enough to carry on the pretense?
“Did you fake your physical response to me just to string me along?”
He hadn’t noticed her pallor until color swept up her neck and flooded her cheeks, but she didn’t look away. “You know I didn’t.”
Her eyes pleaded for understanding, but he didn’t know what to think. What to say. What to do.
“When you find the diaries—if they exist—then what?”
“We go on as agreed. I promised you two years. I won’t break my word.”
Her eyes were clear and earnest. If she was lying she deserved an Oscar.
He picked up the folders and letters. “We’ll discuss this in the morning.”
She started after him. “Adam—”
He held up a hand. “Back off. I need space right now.”
And then he turned and walked away because he wanted to believe her even when everything in him said he shouldn’t. Rationally, he knew her story was ludicrous.
And he’d been burned by lies before.
His father’s to cover up the affair. His mother’s to hide her drinking.
First he’d read the letters and whatever was in the folders and then he’d talk to Brandon to find out where he stood legally in this disaster.
When he had all the facts he’d have to make the decision.
Keep his wife. Or throw her out on her pretty, lying ass.
“I’ll help you look for the diaries.”
Adam’s voice startled Lauryn so badly she nearly inhaled her orange juice.
He believed her. The balloon of happiness swelling inside her warned her that this was about more than finding the diaries.
She twisted in her chair to face him. Adam looked like he’d slept as poorly as she had. Dark smudges underlined his eyes. He’d already shaved and dressed in charcoal trousers and a black silk shirt even though he didn’t have to leave for hours.
Saturdays at Estate were always busy. Lauryn didn’t have to go in. She was part of the Monday to Friday staff, but because of the wedding and honeymoon and time spent training her assistant on the new check-writing software they’d recently implemented, Lauryn had fallen behind on a few tasks and wanted to catch up before the Monday deluge of deliveries hit the club.
“Why would you want to help me?”
“Brandon says you haven’t broken our contract. Even if I boot you out I’d have to pay you the full million.”
She flinched. “I wouldn’t take money for a job I didn’t finish. But please, let me look for the diaries before we end this.”
“We’re not ending this yet. I lost my father recently, too. I know how that skews your thinking. And I know what it’s like to have unanswered questions.”
She fell a little in love with him in that moment. But she squashed those feelings deep inside. Her relationship with Adam was temporary. She couldn’t afford to lose her heart to him. Besides, even if she decided she wanted more from their marriage, she wasn’t the kind of woman a guy like him ended up with. She’d have to be blind to miss the difference between her and the other guests at the Ainsleys’ party or at the posh restaurants where she and Adam dined.
Class vs. brass—of the military brat variety.
Being polite and demure didn’t come naturally to her. It was something she’d labored over every day since her annulment.
He poured himself a cup of coffee but leaned against the counter instead of joining her at the table for brunch. “Your story checks out. I found your father’s obit online. Sounds like he was a hell of a guy. Shame about the accident.”
Adam had checked up on her. She couldn’t blame him. “He went out doing what he loved. Flying. Testing new equipment. And still in uniform. The air force defined him. It’s better that he died before he had to face retirement.”