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Cathy Gillen Thacker
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The Dad Next Door

Originally published as: THE BRIDE SAID, SURPRISE!"

Chapter One

"How much longer do you think you can keep avoiding me?" Luke Carrigan demanded early Thursday morning, Meg Lockhart was so startled to see the attractive young family physician striding into her backyard, she nearly dropped her sanding block. Determined not to let his unexpected presence or the deceptively easygoing, all-male way he moved get to her, Meg rocked back on her heels and looked over at him. It was only seven in the morning, but, freshly showered and shaved, Dr. Luke Carrigan looked more than ready to take on the day and any challenge-including her-that came his way.

Privately wishing he weren't so smart, sexy and intuitive as all get out where she was concerned, Meg ignored the sudden pounding of her heart and looked into his golden-brown eyes with all the directness she could muster. "I've spoken to you," Meg said stiffly, wondering how Luke had known she had the day off and was planning to use it to refinish an old wooden park bench for her backyard, then deciding she didn't want to know if there was matchmaking going on.

"Only at the hospital." Luke corrected her grimly, moving closer yet. "And only when absolutely necessary. And then only about hospital business."

Meg refused to feel guilty for avoiding Luke and his three adorable little girls at her sister's wedding the day before. She had only been doing what she had to do, which was keep Luke and her five-year-old son, Jeremy, well apart. "So?" Meg kept her eyes trained on his ruggedly handsome face. She did not want to think about how sexy Luke looked in faded jeans that clung to his lean hips and muscular thighs and a sage-green polo shirt that showed off his broad shoulders, flat stomach and trim waist. Any more than she wanted to fall prey to his charming smile.

"So we were friends. Meg," Luke reminded her gently. He shoved a hand through his neatly cut sandy-blond hair and, still regarding her patiently, hunkered down next to her, his muscular, jean-clad knee nudging her bare thigh. "At least until..."

Meg took a deep, bracing breath and resumed sanding the old wooden slats with a vengeance, rubbing away the splinters the way she wished she could erase the problems of the past "I don't want to talk about this," she said firmly, breathing in his woodsy aftershave. She moved back slightly, so their bodies were no longer touching. "Jeremy could wake up and overhear."

"And realize we were once the very best of friends?" Luke stayed right where he was and continued to regard her in that approachable, guy-friend way that had gotten to her the way no Casanova moves ever could have. "At least-" Luke's voice dropped another notch "-until we slept together."

Memories of the two of them, their bodies intimately entwined, cascaded over her like a waterfall on a hot summer day. Her heart and mind filled with the passion they had shared, Meg cast a glance over her shoulder at the cottage behind her. She turned back to him, her eyes roving over his tall, solidly built frame and broad, powerful shoulders before coming to rest once again on the arrestingly handsome contours of his face. "I had hoped we would never have to discuss this." As she had hoped-by her silence-that he would have gotten the message.

Luke took her wrist in hand and tugged her to her feet. "And all I've ever wanted to do is talk about it," he countered softly, meaningfully, reluctantly letting go of her wrist, "and tell you how very sorry I am I let things get out of control that way."

Meg sighed. "I am as much to blame for what happened that night as you are, Luke." Hindsight and maturity had combined to show her that.

"I don't think so," Luke replied in a clipped tone, heavy with self-reproach.

Meg had to tilt her head back to see his face. Both his height-at six-five he had a good eight inches on her-and his closeness were disconcerting to her. As was her potent reaction to his sheer physical attractiveness. Every time she was near him, her heart beat a little faster, her senses got a little sharper and the loneliness she'd felt since their friendship abruptly ended became more acute. And yet, how could she regret the mistake that had ended their friendship, knowing how that night had changed her life for all eternity?

"You didn't know what you were doing, you were so upset," Luke continued.

Meg shook her head. "It's still no excuse. I might have already broken up with Kip Brewster, but I also knew you were about to ask Gwyneth to marry you." The fact she had always felt Gwyneth was all wrong for Luke was of no consequence. He'd still been Gwyneth's steady, and Meg had ignored that fact when she'd let a comforting hug take on an entirely different meaning.

"You had just lost your parents in that deadly tornado and become head of the family. You needed someone to hold on to, while you waited for morning and a flight home. I just happened to be there."

He hadn't just been her friend-he had been her lifeline that night. "Even so, I should never have kissed you, Luke," Meg said around the unaccustomed dryness of her throat. "Especially not that way." A way that said he was I the only man there would ever be for her.

Luke shrugged matter-of-factly, looking not nearly as regret-filled as she would have expected. I kissed you back."

How well Meg remembered that. Through high school, college and into grad school, she had dated a lot of different guys. Many of those dates had ended with goodnight kisses. But none had ever been like that. Meg suspected there might never be again. But that was just chemistry, and the chemistry between them had ruined their friendship and nearly wrecked both their lives.

Would have, if Meg had allowed Luke's guilt over their lovemaking to break up his relationship with Gwyneth.

But she had done what she had to do then, just as she would do what she had to do now. "It was a long time ago," Meg said wearily. She dropped the sanding block onto the bench.
"I agree." Luke stood, arms folded in front of him, legs braced apart. "What I don't understand is why you're still acting as if it just happened yesterday. Why, years later, are you avoiding me like the plague?"

Meg wiped her hands on the rag she'd stuck in the waistband of her shorts. She turned away. Doing her best to quell the growing heat in her cheeks, she studied the quarter acre of tidy green lawn that separated her two-bedroom "guest cottage" from the much bigger "main house" next door. Once all part of the same residence, the two properties had been split up years before and sold to different owners, then sold again. "Because I am ashamed and humiliated by the way I behaved," Meg said.

Luke lifted a brow. "Because you're human? Because you're a woman? Because you were reeling with grief and acted impulsively?" As Meg turned back to face him, he studied her implacably. "Or is it something more that has made you keep me at arm's length?" he continued, giving her the slow once-over. "Like Jeremy."

Meg swallowed around the sudden knot of emotion in her throat and tried to still the sudden trembling of her heart. "My son has nothing to do with my feelings about that night," Meg replied firmly. "Or you."

"Where is he?" Luke asked, his voice taking on a protective, parental quality Meg didn't like one bit.

Her confidence at being able to handle this situation, simply by steering clear of Luke as much as possible, wavered. "He's still asleep."

"And his father?" Luke grilled Meg deliberately. "Where is he?"

Meg knew what Luke was driving at. She put up a hand to prevent Luke from asking any more questions. He ignored her and pushed on anyway.

"When exactly was Jeremy born, Meg?"

That, she could answer. "Eight months after my parents died, on December first."

Silence fell between them. Disappointment flashed across Luke's face. "Meaning his father is that guy you almost married-Kip Brewster," he said, almost sadly.

Anguish glimmered in his golden-brown eyes. "And not me."

Meg's shoulders stiffened as she stared at the light dusting of sandy-brown hair on Luke's arms. Guilt and confusion filled her heart. She was tempted to confess all, to lean on Luke's broad shoulders and inherently gallant and romantic nature once again. But even as she was tempted, she knew Luke and knew she couldn't do it. Luke was the kind of selfless-to-a-fault man who took his obligations seriously. He was quick to help anyone and everyone else out. The fallout came later when the good intentions in his head did not match the feelings in his heart. How quickly-and irrevocably-she had learned that.

She had decided what was right years ago. Amid much attempted interference from family and friends, she had taken responsibility for her actions and stuck to her guns in protecting her son from the kind of hurt and rejection she had suffered. She wasn't going to change direction now. Reminding herself that she was protecting everyone with her silence. Meg lifted her head indignantly.

"Haven't you heard? I don't discuss Jeremy's father with anyone. I never have and never will." Life was so much simpler that way. She and Jeremy weren't a burden to anyone.

Still studying her bluntly, he took another step closer.

"Surely your sisters know the truth."

They all certainly wanted to know, Meg thought, as feelings of guilt and remorse hit her anew." If my sisters knew the identity of Jeremy's father they would be on that man's doorstep in a red-hot Texas second, demanding he step up to the gate and do right by us whether he wanted to or not." And that Meg couldn't allow. Especially after all this time had passed.

Luke's brow furrowed. "What's wrong with that?"

"What's wrong with it is that I know what it's like to be suddenly shouldered with the care and responsibility of another human being," she said curtly.

Luke's glance softened. "Which is what happened when you became the legal guardian to your sisters," he noted compassionately.

Despite herself, Meg warmed to the understanding in Luke's low, sensual tone. The goodness in him was what had made them such fast friends in the beginning and kept her from hurting him and his family later. Taking the cloth rag from her belt, she wiped down the bench, checked for splinters, found none. "I love my sisters and I was glad to do it," she admitted with gut-wrenching honesty, "but I'd be lying if I said there weren't times when I resented having such enormous responsibility thrust on me that way."

"Did you feel that way about Jeremy, too?"

Meg sank down on the bench, grappling with her feelings all the while. She wasn't sure why. She just knew she wanted Luke to realize how confused and distraught she'd been back then. "From the first moment I realized I was pregnant, I was happy about having a baby," she admitted slowly, overcome with an onslaught of feeling. "But I was also dismayed," she continued softly. Shaking her head, she stood, slid her hands into the deep pockets of her khaki walking shorts and began to pace away from Luke. "The timing was all wrong. I wasn't married. I wasn't ready for a baby." She whirled back toward Luke. "I had to sell the family ranch and settle the debts and deal with my sisters and help them get over their grief, and all the while try to manage my own sadness, which was dam near completely overwhelming." Meg paused and lifted her eyes to Luke's. "I just...I couldn't take on any more back then." If she'd had to deal with the immensely complicated situation regarding Jeremy's father, she wouldn't have made it, that she knew.

Luke trod closer. "Jeremy's father could have helped you cope," he said quietly.

As always, when this subject was introduced, Meg felt her defenses come up. "He also could have sued me for custody. Or gone overboard to help and then later resented me and Jeremy for the disruption we caused in his life." Neither option had been wanted. Meg hadn't been able to bear the idea of Jeremy's presence hurting anyone, for fear Jeremy'd realize he wasn't wanted the way he deserved to be wanted by absolutely everyone.

Luke studied her. "You think Jeremy's father would have done that?"

Meg shrugged, abruptly feeling as confused and helpless as she had back then. "That's the point. I didn't know what his reaction might be under the circumstances."

Never mind his wife's. "And I didn't want to find out the hard way, especially if it meant Jeremy-and others-would be hurt in the process. I had all I could do to take care of my parents' estate, my sisters, my baby and myself. There was no room in my life for a man who was never meant to be with me and who didn't want or plan this child, either."

Luke frowned. He massaged the muscles on the back of his neck. "I think you're not giving Kip Brewster enough credit. I know the two of you parted badly, but you must have liked something about him-you two dated for months and even talked about getting married-and, from what I remember, he seemed like a decent guy."

On the surface, that was true, Meg knew. Kip was from a wealthy Texas family. Bright and articulate, he had always behaved like a perfect gentleman and treated Meg with care. It was what Kip was capable of behind the scenes that had led to their breakup. But again, that wasn't the kind of personal angst and drama Meg shared with anyone. It was bad enough she knew what a complete fool

Kip had made of her, without letting everyone else know how deeply she had been humiliated. And that especially included Luke. For some reason Meg couldn't quite put her finger on, she didn't want Luke knowing how truly clueless she had been back then. And because Kip had been in the university law school, Meg and Luke in the medical and nursing schools, there was no reason Luke should ever know, no reason Kip's and Luke's paths should ever cross again. Especially since Kip had never even been to Laramie. And he and Meg hadn't had contact since she left Chicago.

"I never said Jeremy's father was Kip," Meg said, piqued.

The Bride Said, "Surprise!"

The McCabes American Romance Book Series by Cathy Gillen Thacker

The Lockharts of Texas American Romance Book Series by Cathy Gillen Thacker

Cathy Gillen Thacker is the bestselling author of witty romantic comedies and warm, family stories whose books are published in 17 languages and 35 countries.