Shadow Lover

Shadow Lover

Anne Stuart

December 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-377-1

Victim. Lover. Both? His dark game is seducing her— just as it had when they were young.

How can he still have that power over her? Eighteen years ago, she saw him die.


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Wealthy, selfish, and greedy, the McDowell family raised Carolyn McDowell—a foster child—like a modern Cinderella. Neglected and ignored, good-hearted Carolyn adored scion Alexander despite it all, though even he tormented her.

When Alex ran away one night, Carolyn followed and witnessed his murder, though she never told anyone. Her beloved Alex died when he was seventeen. There was no doubt.

Eighteen years later, Carolyn returns to the decadent milieu of the McDowell clan to care for her dying foster mother, Sally. As greedy relatives gather to claim their inheritances, a stunning stranger arrives, claiming to be Alexander. To Carolyn’s utter shock, Sally greets her "son” without question, and no one but Carolyn believes he’s a fraud.

As she delves into the mysteries of both the past and present, Carolyn quickly realizes that the resurrected Alex is a dangerous combination of seduction and power. Is this stranger after the McDowell fortune, or is he really, somehow, the Alex of old, come back to claim her? How can he be an imposter and yet know family secrets only the real Alex would remember? Was someone helping him?

What would you do if the boy you loved returned almost twenty years later, and you fell in love with him all over again—even if you were sure it couldn’t be him?



Coming soon!


Chapter One

THE BLINDING WHITE light of a late-spring snowstorm woke her. Carolyn rolled onto her back with a muffled groan, but the glare speared through a narrow crack in her heavy drapes and forced its way beneath her eyelids. There was no way she could ignore it.

She let out a deep, long-suffering sigh. She slept alone, always had, probably always would, and she could sigh to her heart’s content. "I hate Vermont,” she muttered, her voice low and bitter.

Snow in April was obscene. So was snow in September, and she’d had to suffer through that as well. Eight months ago she hadn’t minded. Some naive part of her had reveled in the flurries melting against the brightly colored leaves. Eight months ago she hadn’t known just how long and deadly a Vermont winter could really be.

The house was very quiet. Which was only to be expected—the MacDowell family compound was maintained by the best-trained servants money could buy, and nothing, not a speck of dust, not an untoward noise, ever disturbed the surface tranquility.

There were times, even now, when Carolyn wanted to race down the oak-floored hallways barefoot, singing at the top of her lungs. There were times when she wanted to laugh out loud, to scream in anger, to weep in loneliness. Those times came less often nowadays. She was a sensible woman, one who accepted the good and the bad in life. She muttered the serenity prayer under her breath at all hours, and most of the time she felt as calm and accepting as she appeared. Good, sweet Carolyn. Loyal, faithful Carolyn, always there when she was needed.

Heavy snow was one of those things she couldn’t change. She climbed out of bed and pulled the curtain, letting in the blinding glare. It was still and cold out there—the night had dropped more than a foot of snow on southern Vermont, but the maintenance people were already clearing it away with their usual silent efficiency. Carolyn leaned her forehead against the frosted glass, breathing deeply. Maybe she’d feel better if she got outside in the fresh, cold air. Even if she desperately needed the sun to warm her bones, not ice them.

She could always climb back into bed, pulling the duvet up around her ears, but for some reason that had never been an option, not since she’d moved into Alex’s old room last fall when she’d come back home to be with Sally. Sally had removed all of his belongings and put them in storage more than a decade ago, and Carolyn had bought new furniture, new curtains and rugs, and a big, old-fashioned bed in a vain effort to make it seem like home. It didn’t work.

Alex had been gone a long time—if she were a fool she’d think they’d forgotten about him. But no one forgot about lost children, not even the powerful, unsentimental MacDowells.

She sighed. Maybe she should just reclaim her small, utilitarian bedroom in the east wing where she’d usually slept during her visits. At least there she’d felt a sense of belonging, not the odd feeling that she was an imposter, that she’d usurped the best room in the place.

She was being ridiculous and she knew it. But she felt oddly unsettled; she’d felt that way for weeks. As if something monumental was about to happen.

She started to push away from the window, and then froze. Someone had parked at the head of the circular driveway, smack in front of the deceptively simple entrance to the main house. An ancient, rusty black Jeep stood up to its hubcaps in snow, and the inches on its roof told her it had to have been there for hours. It wasn’t there when she went to bed last night, sometime around eleven. She’d slept later than usual, but even so, it was still only a little past eight. Who in God’s name could have showed up in the middle of the night? Had something happened to Aunt Sally while Carolyn had been lying in bed bitching about the weather?

She had a closetful of silk nightgowns, presents from the various unimaginative members of the MacDowell family. Carolyn slept in oversized t-shirts, and she ran into the hallway, barefoot, not bothering with a bathrobe.

The main house in the MacDowell compound consisted of a huge center building and two wings off either side. Carolyn’s room was on the second floor; Aunt Sally’s sprawling apartment took up the first floor of the west wing. The house was silent as she raced down the stairs, arriving at the open door of Sally’s rooms breathless, panicky.

The old woman lay in the hospital bed in the inner room, still, silent, her eyes closed. The curtains were drawn, and only a dim light penetrated the artificial gloom. For more than a year Aunt Sally had been bedridden, hovering closer and closer to death, but there should have been more warning.

"Aunt Sally!” Carolyn’s voice was a broken whisper as she started forward into the shadows, ready to fling herself on the bed and weep.

An arm shot out, catching her before she could hurl herself across the room, and she was too startled to do more than strike out in sudden panic.

Aunt Sally’s faded eyes opened, and she peered through the darkness. "Is that you, Carolyn?” she said in a sleepy, surprisingly strong voice.

Whoever held her seemed to have no intention of letting her go, but Carolyn’s attention was centered on the woman who’d been a mother to her. "You’re all right!” she said, not bothering to disguise the relief in her voice. "I thought something might have happened.”

Aunt Sally’s lined face looked oddly luminous. "Something’s happened, all right, Carolyn. The best thing in the world.”

Belatedly Carolyn realized that someone was still keeping her from Aunt Sally. She turned, and he dropped his arm, stepping back. She stared up at him in astonished silence, letting her distrusting eyes travel the length of him.

"He’s back,” Aunt Sally said, her soft voice unmistakably joyful. "He came back to me.” She sounded as if her lost lover had returned.

The man had to be somewhere in his mid-thirties, ruling out that possibility, however. He was tall, though not as huge as some of her relatives, lean, and dressed in faded jeans and a thick cotton sweater that had seen better days. His streaked blond hair needed to be cut; his handsome face needed a shave. There was nothing to be done about his astonishing eyes, except to wish that they weren’t surveying her with quite such a cynical expression.

She’d never seen him before in her life; she was utterly certain of that fact.

"Who?” she said, staring up at him. "Who’s come back?”

His smile wasn’t particularly unpleasant. Just faintly mocking, as if he’d expected that reaction from her. "You don’t remember me, Carolyn?” he murmured. His voice was low-pitched, faintly husky, the voice of a smoker. "I’m wounded.”

"I don’t know you.” She didn’t want to know him. There was an aura of danger to him that was both illogical and unmistakable.

"It’s Alex, Carolyn,” Aunt Sally said joyfully. "My son has come home to me.”

Carolyn froze in disbelief. She should have been shocked, but deep inside, some part of her had guessed who he was. Who he was pretending to be.

Alexander MacDowell, Sally MacDowell’s only child, heir to half the MacDowell fortune, had arrived back in the nick of time, almost twenty years after he’d disappeared. And she didn’t believe it for one moment.

"Aren’t you going to welcome me home, Carolyn?” he asked after a long, strained silence. "The prodigal son, returned to the bosom of his loving family?”

She could feel Sally’s anxious gaze, and it was stronger than the sheen of mockery in the man’s blue eyes. She wanted to scream at him, but her love for Sally stopped her. Sally had accepted him; Sally was fooled. Carolyn would have to be very careful indeed.

"Welcome back,” she said, forcing the words.

Sally leaned back and smiled, closing her eyes. But the man calling himself Alexander MacDowell wasn’t fooled for a moment. "I think my mother needs to sleep,” he said softly. "I’m afraid I woke her up when I arrived last night, and she was too excited to do more than drift off.”

"She’s been very sick,” Carolyn said, trying to keep the anger from her voice.

"She’s dying,” he said flatly. He glanced down at her. "Why don’t you come have some coffee with me and tell me how she’s been doing? I’m sure Constanza will find us something to eat.”

"How did you know Constanza was still here?”

"I saw her last night. She and Ruben wept all over me,” he said. "You don’t seem very happy to see me, Carolyn. Have I ruined something by my unexpected reappearance?”


He smiled then, a cool smile that was still surprisingly sexy. "Why don’t we talk about it? Don’t feel you have to get dressed on my account. You’ve grown up very nicely indeed.”

He probably meant to fluster her, but even if Carolyn wasn’t a MacDowell by blood, she’d spent her entire life surrounded by them. She lifted her head regally, ignoring the fact that she was wearing only a bright red t-shirt with Tigger emblazoned on the front, and it came halfway down her long, bare legs. "It’ll take me five minutes to get dressed,” she said coolly. "I’ll meet you in the breakfast room.” She waited for his response.

"I haven’t been here in almost twenty years, Carolyn. There wasn’t a breakfast room back then.”

"Ask Constanza,” she said, turning her back on him, resisting the impulse to pull the t-shirt down closer to her knees.

She waited until she was back in her room before she let reaction set in. Closing the door behind her, she leaned against it, letting a shiver wash down over her body at the memory of the stranger’s eyes, watching her, mocking her.

Because he was a stranger—she was absolutely sure of that. She had spent most of her early childhood in the proximity of Alexander MacDowell, and she still bore the scares to prove it, both psychic and physical. And that man in Aunt Sally’s bedroom was nothing more than an imposter, and given the huge sums of money involved, that made him a criminal as well.

She pulled on her clothes hurriedly, slamming drawers and barely pausing to pull a brush through her hair before she left the room again. She didn’t trust him alone in this house. She didn’t trust him at all.

She’d been almost fourteen years old when she’d last seen Sally MacDowell’s only real child. Alex had been a monster from infancy, or so she’d been told, and adolescence hadn’t served him well. He was wild, dangerous, far too pretty for his own good, and absolutely no one could control him—not his stuffy Uncle Warren, who tended to view him and all children as distasteful aliens; not his strict mother, who ruled her world but melted when faced with her beloved son. He stole, he lied, he raised hell, and Ruben and Constanza kept finding both cigarettes and marijuana in his room.

Ruben kept covering for him, but Carolyn had heard the grown-ups talk. And she had prayed, every night, that they’d send him away, to military school, to reform school, to someplace where they’d beat the crap out of him and make sure he never came back to torment the young girl who wasn’t really his sister, and who would never truly belong with the grand MacDowells. The young girl who had a ridiculous, debilitating crush on him that nothing would destroy, no matter how horrible he was.

In the end, they didn’t send him away. He simply took off, with every spare piece of cash in the house, including the kitchen money, Constanza’s savings, Carolyn’s piggy bank full of quarters that at last count had equaled eighty-three dollars, and sixty-seven hundred dollars in cash. He hadn’t been able to get his hands on his mother’s impressive jewelry collection, but thirteen-year-old Carolyn had already been given inappropriately valuable gold jewelry on birthdays and Christmas. He’d made off with that as well.

The best private investigators, the most determined police forces had been unable to find any trace of him over the ensuing years. Warren had sniffed and informed his sister she was well rid of him, and the fight that had erupted had kept Warren and Sally apart for almost a decade.

And now the black sheep had returned. Or someone pretending to be Alexander MacDowell was back. And Carolyn wasn’t sure which would be more dangerous—the real Alex or a phony one.

She found him in the breakfast room, his long legs stretched out over an adjoining chair, a cup of coffee in one hand. The delicate Limoges cup that Aunt Sally loved looked ridiculous in his large, strong hand. It was tanned, and he wore no rings, she noticed. The Alex she had known would have worn rings. He was staring out at the wintry landscape, squinting against the bright white glare, and she stood in the doorway, allowing herself the dubious benefit of watching him.

There should have been no reason why he couldn’t be Alexander MacDowell. The teenaged Alex had had pale blond hair, but it could have darkened into the brown-streaked, shaggy mass on the stranger. His pretty, boyish features, his petulant mouth and hypnotic, slightly tilted eyes could have matured into the man who lounged there, entirely at ease. There were a million reasons why he could be Alex MacDowell, and only one reason why he couldn’t.

"Are you going to hover there like a vulture?” he said lazily, not bothering to turn and look at her. Her reflection was clear in the bank of windows—he must have seen her the moment she appeared.

"That sounds more like you than me,” she said calmly enough, moving into the room and pouring herself a cup of coffee. The Limoges cup fit perfectly in her hands. Her hands were delicate, long fingered, graceful. Aristocratic hands, in stark contrast to the stranger’s hands.

He swiveled around to look at her. "You think I’m a vulture?”

"Don’t they hover at the side of the dying, waiting to scavenge?” He was sitting in her usual chair. The table was large enough for eight, and yet he’d somehow managed to hone in on the one thing she claimed for herself.

He smiled up at her, a slow, wicked smile. "You never did like me much, did you, Carolyn?”

He meant to be ingratiating, but Carolyn was immune. She sat across from him, taking a strengthening sip of her black coffee. "I never liked Alex much,” she said carefully, though the real Alex would have known better. "I’m not sure what I think of you.”

"Ah. You don’t think I’m Alexander MacDowell? What am I doing here, then?” He didn’t seem the slightest bit perturbed by her doubt.

"Sally MacDowell is dying. When she does she’ll leave a substantial amount of money to her heirs. Alexander MacDowell has been missing for more than eighteen years, long enough to be declared dead. Warren’s been itching to do just that for at least ten years now. If someone hadn’t shown up, claiming to be Alex, then there’d be that much more money to go around.”

"Greedy, are you?” he said, spooning sugar into his coffee with reckless abandon.

"Not particularly. I’m not one of the heirs. Whether Alex is alive or dead makes no difference to me. At least financially.” She was proud of her cool, unemotional voice. She’d worked hard on perfecting it, on being the perfect MacDowell—she who never was a true MacDowell at all.

"You mean my mother isn’t leaving you anything? I find that hard to believe—you’ve been a part of this family almost since you were born.”

"Not legally,” she said. "I was never adopted.”

"Not even after I left?”

"Why would you think that?” she countered sharply. "You didn’t have anything to do with my being kept as a foster child, did you?”

"You overestimate my influence,” he said. "Besides, I liked having you as a little sister. I wouldn’t have minded if they’d made it legal. You didn’t answer my question, though. Are you trying to tell me that my mother hasn’t left you anything in her will?”

"Why are you so interested in her will? How do you know you’re even still in it?”

"You’ve as good as told me so, Carolyn,” he said gently. "Besides, my mother was so happy to see me last night she told me all about it herself, and how grateful she was that she had never given in to pressure and changed it. So how much did she leave you?”

She stared at him in profound distaste. "Whatever Alex’s other flaws,” she said, "he was never crass.”

He laughed, a light, mocking sound that grated on her nerves. "You’ve been around Sally too long. You’ve got that arctic edge down perfectly. Did you have to practice or did you just absorb it by osmosis?” He obviously didn’t expect her to answer. He swung his feet down onto the floor and reached for the coffeepot, filling his delicate flowered cup and ladling in an indecent amount of sugar. The real Alex had always had a weakness for sweets. "I’ve lived a crass life for the last eighteen years. You’ll have to forgive me if my social skills are a bit rusty.”

"I’m sure you have,” she said stonily. "But you aren’t Alexander MacDowell.”

"It must be nice to be so sure of yourself.” He poured cream in as well, turning the coffee a pale beige. He glanced up at her, and she expected to see a flare of anger in his eyes. Instead, he smiled at her. "Are you going to be the hardest one to convince? My mother, Constanza, and Ruben welcomed me with open arms. Of course, they wanted me back.”

"Unlike me.”

He glanced at her. "Why don’t you want me back?”

"I don’t want an imposter worming his way into the family and defrauding them of money.”

"And if I’m the real Alex?”

"I don’t want Sally’s heart broken. She doesn’t have much time left, and I want it to be peaceful. She’d learned to live without her son. She mourned him, and then got on with her life.”

"Peace is a highly overrated commodity,” he murmured. "I think Sally would prefer a few weeks of joy to a few months of fading away.”

"It’s not your place to decide,” she said fiercely.

"It isn’t yours, either.”

Stalemate. She looked across the table at him, making no effort to disguise her dislike. "I assume you have proof,” she said.

"Assume anything you want,” he said airily.

"Warren and Patsy aren’t going to accept you at face value. They’re going to want answers, physical proof. There are fingerprints, dental records—”

"Alex MacDowell never had his fingerprints taken, even when he was caught with a bag of pot when he was fourteen. His family was too powerful. And there may be dental records, for all I know, but since I never had a filling before I was twenty-three, I don’t think they’ll tell you much.”

"You’ve researched this very carefully,” she said, not bothering to keep the bitterness from her voice.

"Look at it this way—at the absolute worst I’m making an old woman very happy, and there’s more than enough money in this damned family to go around. They won’t miss my share.”

"Are you admitting you aren’t Alex MacDowell?”

He rose, graceful, as the young Alex would have been, and moved around the table. She didn’t flinch, didn’t back away from him. She merely wrapped her hands tightly around the delicate cup and sat there, looking at him.

He put his hands on the linen tablecloth in front of her, leaning over her. Too close. She found she was holding her breath, unwilling to breathe in the same air he did.

"Why are you afraid of me, Carolyn?”

He was too close. She could see the streaks of gold in his brown hair, the streaks of green in his blue eyes. He was so close she could smell the coffee on his breath, the melted snow, the faint scent of shampoo. She looked at him, and for a moment she thought of Alex, long, long ago.

"I’m not,” she said.

"Are you afraid I’ll take your place again? That Sally will love me more than you? That you’ll be on the outside again, looking in?”

She let go of the cup, knowing that in another moment she would have crushed the fragile bone china in her delicate hands. She sat back, away from him, and she made her mouth curve in the cool, unemotional smile she’d perfected long ago.

"I’m not worried about a thing,” she said, "except for Sally’s well-being.”

"You weren’t so saintly when you were a little girl,” he said. "I remember you were always whining, always trying to follow me. When did you get in the running to become the next Mother Teresa?”

"Back off.” She couldn’t help it; the words came out, tight and angry.

It was what he wanted. His smile widened, and she wanted to hit him. She put her hands in her lap, keeping her back straight, as he moved away from her. "They’ve trained you well, Carolyn,” he murmured. "They did what they could never do with me.”

"And what’s that?”

"They made you one of them. They sucked the life and soul from you.” He shook his head. "Too bad I didn’t take you with me when I ran.”

"You’ve forgotten some of the details you should have memorized. I was thirteen years old at the time.”

"So you were,” he said softly. "That didn’t mean you didn’t know how to kiss.”

She could feel the color drain from her face. There was no way he could know. No way anyone could know. "What... what are you talking about?”

He headed for the arched doorway. "I think I’ll check on my mother. I hadn’t realized how much I missed her.”

"You didn’t answer my question.” She rose, standing at the table, holding on to the surface so he wouldn’t see she was trembling.

"No, I didn’t.” He smiled sweetly. "Better call Warren and Patsy and have them get up here. Maybe they’ll do a better job of unmasking the imposter.”

He was gone before she could say another word.



Chapter Two

"WHAT THE HELL is going on here?” Warren MacDowell stormed into the small, perfectly decorated library and proceeded to loom over Carolyn.

She closed the leather-covered checkbook with deceptive calm. Warren’s stuffy, bombastic temperament always had the ability to shake her composure, but she’d learned to disguise it years ago. Warren was the kind of man who thrived on other people’s weaknesses, and Carolyn had enough sense not to exhibit hers any more than necessary.

"I tried to call you,” she said, looking up at him. "But you’d already left.”

"Sally called me in the middle of the goddamned night,” he snapped, even more bad-tempered than usual, "with some ridiculous story about Alexander returning from the dead. Where is he?”

"I haven’t seen him since this morning. I’ve been working in here.”

"He would have to pick a blizzard to come home. It took me forever to drive up here. So what do you think?”

Warren was not a man who usually asked for anyone’s opinion, particularly hers. "What do I think about what?”

"Don’t be obtuse! What do you think about the prodigal son? Is it really him?”

"Who else could it be?” she said carefully.

"A con man. We all assumed Alex was dead, had been for years. There’s a lot of money involved—it would be worth someone’s while to try and pull this off. Have you asked him any questions? Asked for proof?”

"I didn’t think it was my place. Aunt Sally believes him, and she’s happier than she’s been in years. I’m not about to tell her that he’s a phony.”

"But you think he is,” Warren said shrewdly. Carolyn looked up at him. Warren was a good-looking man in his late sixties, but then, all the MacDowells had been blessed with abundant physical charm as well as money. A perennial bachelor, he cared more about his appearance and his possessions than anything else, and his gray suit was undoubtedly Armani. He was a little too old for it, but he still looked elegant and untouchable.

He had never been one to encourage intimacy, and she was in no mood to confide her doubts. "I don’t know,” she said. Lying.

Warren shook his head. "I’ll have to see the boy. Ask him a few pointed questions—”

"He’s not a boy anymore.”

Warren shrugged his dapper, narrow shoulders. "Who is? Where will I find the black sheep?”

"Probably by Sally’s bedside. That’s where he was headed after breakfast.”

"How cozy. Sally’s a smart woman. She’ll see through an imposter easily enough. It shouldn’t take much to uncover the truth.”

"No,” Carolyn said, "it shouldn’t.” But for some reason she didn’t think it was going to be that simple.

"Well?” Warren said, growing impatient. "Aren’t you coming with me?”

The day was getting stranger and stranger. Warren usually treated her as a cross between a poor relation and an upper servant, which, in fact, described her position in the MacDowell family fairly well. He’d never sought her opinion or her company in the past, he’d simply accepted her presence.

She rose. "If you want me to.”

"You knew Alex as well as anyone. You grew up with him, in a manner of speaking. I want to see if you can put a dent in his story.”

It wasn’t an enticing thought. The man with Aunt Sally was a liar and a fraud, but Carolyn was in no particular mood to be the bearer of bad tidings. It was up to someone else to unmask him, not her. The most important thing was to protect Aunt Sally now that her failing health made her unable to protect herself. The truth, and the money, were only secondary issues.

But Warren was standing by the door, practically fuming with impatience, and now wasn’t the time to finally stand up to him. That time was coming, with Aunt Sally’s impending death. But it wasn’t here yet.

Sally’s room was bathed in gentle shadows. This time Carolyn didn’t jump to any macabre conclusions as she saw her dozing peacefully in the hospital bed that had been moved in several months ago. This time she didn’t miss the figure stretched out on the green velvet Victorian fainting couch, reading peacefully.

Warren cleared his throat with awesome majesty, and Aunt Sally jerked into wakefulness. The man pretending to be Alex didn’t move, simply raised his head to look at them with sublime indifference.

"Warren.” If Aunt Sally sounded more resigned than enthusiastic, it was only to be expected. She had tolerant affection for her younger brother, but not much more. "Your nephew has returned.”

"So it seems,” Warren said in a deliberately lukewarm voice. But then, he was never a man to show enthusiasm. "Welcome back, Alex.”

"Uncle Warren.” Was there a trace of malicious humor in his eyes as he looked at the older man? Of course, the real Alex had always viewed his stuffy uncle with amused disdain.

"Why don’t we go into the living room so we don’t disturb Sally? As you can imagine, there are a great many questions I want answered—” Warren said smoothly.

"No!” Aunt Sally’s voice was surprisingly strong.

"Don’t be ridiculous, Sally,” Warren protested. "I just want to ask the boy a few questions. Arrange for a few medical tests. Just a formality, of course, but it’s only reasonable to be cautious. After all, it’s been eighteen years, and while I will admit there’s a surface resemblance, we should have some form of proof. Papers, answers—”

"No,” Sally said again, more calmly. "I won’t have you cross-examining him. Do you think I don’t know my own son? It could have been fifty years, and I’d still recognize him, with my heart if not with my eyes.”

"Your eyes aren’t any good,” Warren interrupted tactlessly. "And I doubt your lawyers are going to find this acceptable without some form of proof.”

"Fuck the lawyers,” Alex said in a calm voice.

After a shocked moment, Sally laughed. "Yes, Warren,” she said, a little short of breath. "You heard what my son said. Fuck the lawyers.”

"Sally!” Warren protested, clearly shocked, but Sally ignored him.

"Come over here, Carolyn,” she commanded with her usual high-handed charm. "I haven’t seen much of you today.”

"I thought you might want some time alone with Alex.” She didn’t even hesitate—she was proud of herself—that she could swallow the lie so easily.

Her reward was Aunt Sally’s bright smile. "We’ll have dinner tonight, the four of us. I’m feeling quite wonderfully strong right now, ready to take on the world. Why don’t you take Alex to his room and make sure he gets settled? He hasn’t had more than a moment to himself since he arrived last night.”

She’d already anticipated it, but she stalled. "What room shall I put him in?”

"Don’t be silly, Carolyn. His old room. It’s been waiting for him all these years.” She turned her head to the imposter. "I had it redecorated when the house was enlarged, but I think you’ll still like it. If you want anything changed, just let Carolyn know and she’ll see to it.”

She could feel his eyes on her, an unpleasant sensation. "What does Carolyn do nowadays? Besides see to any changes?” His mother wouldn’t hear the faint mockery in his voice. Carolyn couldn’t miss it. And couldn’t stop from bristling.

"She takes good care of me,” Sally said. "She’s been wonderful, Alex. She insisted on quitting her job to take care of me when the cancer came back this time. I couldn’t have asked for a better daughter.”

His eyelids drooped over his mesmerizing eyes. "I can imagine,” he said. She knew what he was thinking, even without him saying anything. He thought she’d come back for the money. Left her apartment in Boston, her career as a school social worker and come back to nurse a dying old lady during her final days. A very rich dying old lady.

After all, that was why he’d appeared, wasn’t it? And it was a waste of time to insist she had nothing to gain but some sort of peace of mind.

"You’re very noble,” he said. And for some reason Carolyn suddenly remembered the real Alex, his voice laden with sexual innuendo.

There was nothing sexual going on here, she reminded herself belatedly. Just a con man, out to bilk an old lady out of her fortune, and the only thing that stood between them was her loving family. But the MacDowells had never seemed particularly loving, though even now Warren was surveying the interloper with surprising acceptance.

"Go along, then, and get settled,” Warren said expansively. "We’ll talk later. I’m sure Carolyn will take most excellent care of you.” He hesitated. "Good to see you back, my boy.”

Sally reached up her gnarled hand and patted Warren’s approvingly.

"It’s good to be back,” Alexander MacDowell said. And Carolyn didn’t miss the faint undertone of mockery in his low, husky voice.

She could feel his eyes on her back as she led the way up the wide center staircase. Thank God she’d already managed to strip her borrowed room of all her clothes and belongings. If the imposter knew she’d been sleeping there it would be one more weapon he could use.

She went in ahead of him, giving it a last-minute check to make sure no trace of her temporary occupation had remained. Alex paused inside the door, surveying it critically. "She wasn’t expecting me back,” he said.

Carolyn paused in the center of the room, watching him. "Alex disappeared more than eighteen years ago, and in all that time there’s never been any word, any hint that he was even still alive. Aunt Sally is a realistic woman—she accepted the obvious years ago.”

That faint, unfamiliar smile twisted his mouth. "And aren’t you happy for her?” he asked softly.

She kept her mouth shut, ignoring the unmistakable taunt. "The bed’s new, and everything’s very comfortable—”

"Who used the room while I was gone?”

"No one important,” she said, glad she was able to be completely honest. "Just an occasional guest.”

"Why is it filled with chintz and flowers? It doesn’t look like Aunt Patsy’s style. Too much bare wood. Patsy likes things plush and padded.”

She tried not to show how startled she was. He’d done his homework, that much was certain—he had the pampered Patsy MacDowell down to a tee. "If it’s too feminine I can go out and buy some hunting prints,” she said in a slightly caustic voice. "Dead animals ought to macho it up a bit.”

"Was this your room?”

This time she couldn’t hide her reaction. Of course he was well versed—a con man would have to be. He’d need to be observant as well, and she’d probably given it away with the unavoidable tightening of her mouth.

"I was living in Boston until Sally got sicker,” she said, offering no real answer.

She owed the real Alexander MacDowell absolutely nothing—she owed his impersonator even less. Constanza had helped wipe out any trace of her presence, and she was back in the small room on the first floor where she’d spent most of her life. "There’s a new bathroom off to the left that you should find more than adequate,” she said briskly. "I’ll have Ruben bring up your suitcases—”

"I can handle it.”

He was standing between her and the door, and she had no choice but to look at him dead on.

He could have been Alex. He had the same clear, almost luminous blue eyes, faintly slanted so they had almost a Slavic look, and his sulky, pretty teenaged face could have matured into the starkly elegant bone structure, the high cheekbones and lush, sensual mouth. He could have been Alex, except for one thing.

Alex was dead.

He moved, and she breathed an imperceptible sigh of relief. She didn’t want to pass too close to him as she made her exit.

But he didn’t move out of the way. He moved closer, coming right up to her. She stood her ground, because she’d learned long ago never to show fear, but this time it was an effort. He was tall. Tall enough to make her feel just slightly threatened. Alex hadn’t been that tall, and Alex had been seventeen when he disappeared. He would have reached his full height by then, wouldn’t he?

"So I stole your room,” he said in his soft, husky voice. "And I stole your place as Aunt Sally’s caretaker. It’s no wonder you’re not welcoming me with open arms.”

"I’m not much for open arms in the best of circumstances,” she said.

"I bet not,” he murmured. "Though I have to admit it’s a shame. Are you going to help Uncle Warren prove I’m an imposter?”

"If you are.”

"And what do you think, Carolyn?” He was too close. He reminded her eerily of the real Alexander, and it disturbed her, confused her. Made her doubt the truth she’d never been quite sure of in the first place.

It was no wonder he had a powerful effect on her. Only someone who could successfully impersonate the real Alex would have attempted such a masquerade, and the imposter knew all the tricks. All the slight, sensual little habits Alex had had, to make her feel vulnerable, make her feel a strange, despicable kind of longing.

She stared at him stonily, fighting it. "I think that if you hurt Aunt Sally I’ll make you wish you’d never tried this.”

"Tried what?” His voice was soft, taunting. "What are you going to do to me?”

But Carolyn wasn’t going to fall for it, no matter how much he goaded her. She wasn’t ready to declare her outright enmity, even if he already recognized it.

"I think you’ll be very comfortable here,” she said, taking a small step back and moving around him with what she hoped was a politely casual air.

"Oh, I’m sure I will,” he said softly. He was deliberately letting her escape, and she knew it. She didn’t care—getting away from him was suddenly very important. "If you ever start missing your old room, feel free to visit,” he added.

"I’ll be fine,” she said.

"It’s a big bed. I don’t mind sharing.”

She jerked around, stung beyond endurance. "It’ll be a cold day in hell.”

He glanced out at the wintery landscape. "It already is, Carolyn.”

THE MAN CALLING himself Alexander MacDowell allowed himself a small, wicked grin as the door slammed shut behind the departing Carolyn. He’d been trying to get an honest reaction out of her since she’d first raced into Sally’s bedroom, but she’d been impressively, annoyingly controlled, unwilling to let her raging disbelief and disapproval surface no matter how he pushed her.

He wondered why. Affection for the woman who’d provided her with a home and a family might have something to do with it. For all that Carolyn Smith seemed to be a calm, slightly repressed young woman, she clearly had strong affection and loyalty for Sally MacDowell. Perhaps her one weakness.

He knew more about her than she could ever guess. He knew where she’d worked, he knew her friends, he’d even seen her apartment near Beacon Hill. He knew the names of every man she’d ever slept with. Since that list came to a grand total of three, it wasn’t a difficult feat, assuming his sources were reliable. So far they had been, but he was prepared for anything.

She looked at with cool dislike in her clear blue eyes, and it both annoyed and aroused him. He was going to need an ally in this rambling old house. He was going to need someone he could count on, someone he could use. Carolyn Smith was the obvious, perfect choice.

She wouldn’t be easy. But then, few things worth having came easily. If he could make cool, protective Carolyn believe in him, then no one would dare doubt him.

She hadn’t responded all that well to his attempts to be wryly charming. She had some unresolved business with the teenaged Alex MacDowell, and it probably had something to do with adolescent desires. Alex MacDowell had been the quintessential bad boy, raising hell with a mastery impressive for one of his youth. And very few women, particularly impressionable adolescent ones, could resist a wickedly charming black sheep. She’d had a crush on young Alex, and everyone in the MacDowell family had known about it.

The man who’d arrived back at the MacDowell compound in southern Vermont could raise a certain amount of hell himself. And he had every intention of doing so. He could be wickedly charming, and he intended to have Carolyn find him completely irresistible. Too much depended on getting her to believe in him. If he had Carolyn on his side, no one would dare question him.

The old lady wasn’t long for this world—he recognized that fact with calm assurance. He’d seen enough people die to know when someone was living on borrowed time. Sally MacDowell would be dead by summer—all her hundreds of millions of dollars couldn’t do a damned thing to stop the inexorable hunger of cancer.

He could make it through that time with no difficulty whatsoever. He was used to manipulating people, to having them do what he wanted. He had a talent for it. Sally would die peacefully, her long-lost son by her side. Carolyn would get her teenaged romantic fantasies fulfilled in the bed she’d unwillingly abandoned. And when he left, all his questions would be answered. He could go back to being plain Sam Kinkaid, alone in this world and liking it just fine.

Probably the safest thing might have been to keep his distance from Carolyn Smith. She was a smart woman—he knew that more from looking into her clear blue eyes than from the reams of information passed to him. It didn’t matter that she’d graduated from Bennington with honors. All she had to do was look at him with that guarded, withering expression and he had the sense not to underestimate her.

He’d been carefully primed for all the people he’d find in the Vermont house, but his informant had failed when it came to describing Carolyn. Beneath the conservative clothes, the neatly coiled hair, the quiet, seemingly demure manners, lurked something unexpected.

Something fierce and passionate, carefully repressed.

She’d been brought into the MacDowell family when she was a two-year-old, and twenty-eight years later she was back at Sally’s side when everyone else had left. What had brought her back to Sally MacDowell? Money? Loyalty? Greed?

He had a healthy respect for greed. It was a powerful motivator, one that could be used to his advantage.

He knew why Sally loved her, why the MacDowells approved of her. She was essentially an unpaid companion, loyal, unquestioning, willing to go to any lengths for her unofficial family.

And she had the one thing all the MacDowells considered of primary importance.

She was beautiful.

Odd, how physical beauty was of such value to the extended MacDowell family. To start out with, they’d been blessed with extraordinary genes and generous health. And they’d bred wisely. There were no dogs in the MacDowell family—even on her deathbed, Sally was a gorgeous creature, with papery-fine, pale skin and dark, beautiful eyes.

Carolyn had been a fitting complement to the glorious MacDowells. The photo albums had traced her development from a solemn, delicate toddler through a coltish adolescence. Now she seemed muted, like a fine painting seen through bad lighting, the colors dim and faded. Her clothes were classic, uninspired, hanging on her body with tailored severity that nevertheless seemed to hide her.

He moved over to the window, staring out over the snow-covered landscape. He hadn’t been in Vermont in years—he’d forgotten what a late-spring snow could be like. He couldn’t have timed his reappearance better—the turmoil of the weather paralleled the unsettling effect of the prodigal son’s return.

He was a man who was more alert than most—he heard the footsteps in the hall outside his door and knew immediately who they belonged to. Ruben’s tread was soft soled and discreet; Constanza’s footstep was sturdy. And there was no way Carolyn was going to come back to this room without an exceptionally good reason.

Alex stretched out on the bed, staring up at the beamed ceiling. It was a comfortable bed, big enough to fit his frame and room to spare. He didn’t move when the knock sounded on the door.

"Come in, Warren,” he said lazily, contemplating the cracks in the ancient beams.



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