BLACK HILLS WHITE KNIGHT

Deb_Black Hills White Knight

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A white knight? Hardly. His suit is Armani–not armor.

William Hughes leaves high drama to his Hollywood A-list friends and clients. There’s only room for one crusader in the family and that role falls to his saintly mother, a doctor who has devoted her life to the children of the world…seeming to forget she has a son of her own. But one tragic missed opportunity to help a friend still haunts him. When asked to fly Daria Fontina and her two daughters to a safe house in the Black Hills, William doesn’t hesitate. He trusts his highly reputed English reserve to shield him from the immediate attraction he feels toward Daria. Luckily, even if his heart were to succumb, the beautiful young mother would never risk her hard-gained freedom on a globe-trotting loner whose glamorous—if empty—lifestyle might prove too great a trade-off for a shot at a life he never thought he deserved.

When push comes to physical abuse, Daria Fontina knows she has no choice but to leave her powerful politician husband. Fear for her children’s safety makes escaping to her grandfather’s home the Black Hills her only option. Putting their lives and safety in the hands of a handsome Englishman with a jet seems like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. But one thing she’s learned from her marriage—actions speak louder than words, and the depth of compassion she reads in William Hughes’s eyes comes from great loss. Her rescuer might not be riding a white horse, but he seems prepared to take on whatever army her estranged politician husband sends after her. A woman could fall for a man like that—even a woman who has no intention of falling in love again. Ever.

* * *

Chapter 1 ~

“A toast to the bride and groom. Where’s William? He’s really good at this sort of thing. ”

William Hughes heard Cooper Lindstrom’s voice echo off the stretched canvas walls of the oversized teepee. Everyone did. The sixty or so people squeezed into the odd, distinctly Sentinel Pass venue turned to look at him.

“My pleasure,” he lied, crafting a deliberate smile that he was certain would fool most people.

It wasn’t that he didn’t care about the newlyweds. He did. Kat was one of the sweetest people he’d ever met, and Jack seemed like a decent chap. The two were the embodiment of love. At the moment. The problem stemmed from William’s faith in the institution of marriage.

A part of him wanted to cry “Why bother?”

But, of course, he couldn’t do that. Never mind that one of his clients texted him earlier that day to say she’d met lucky husband number six—or was it seven? Never mind that William’s parents, who had been married six months longer than William had been alive, had spent the vast majority of those years on separate continents, maintaining completely separate lives that only included him when it was convenient.

He would do his duty, support his friends and give it the old school try. The English way. Forget the fact he was only half  Brit.

He set his empty champagne glass beside one of the many poinsettia plants anchoring the reception’s holiday theme and walked to the center of the circular room. Famous faces, like Cooper and paparazzi favorite Morgana Carlyle, shared space with regular folk, the disparate group brought together by Sentinel Passtime, a TV show based on Cooper and his wife Libby’s real-life love story.

He looked at the pair, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, Coop’s hand resting on Libby’s pregnant belly. William was glad he wasn’t flying them back home after the wedding. Libby’s doctor had provided a written okay for her fly in her third trimester, but only on a commercial airline. That was fine with William—his mother might be able to deliver babies under extreme conditions, but William was a pilot, not a selfless doctor-slash-saint.

“Ahem. If you please. Don’t make me shout. You won’t like me if I shout.”

The threat drew a few chuckles, but it also accomplished what he’d intended. The crowd quieted. The only noise was that of the caterers in the adjoining shop.

“Friends and family of Kat and Jack, we’ve come together on a snowy night in the Black Hills of South Dakota to witness a union between two friends who have decided to make this odd journey we call life together. By lifting our glasses high—” he snagged a glass of bubbly from a passing waiter, his last, since he planned to fly in the morning “—we wish you a beautiful life filled with all the mayhem and excitement that makes for a good story in the twilight of your years. To you both.”

He clinked his glass around the bridal table. “Your gift from me awaits you at the airport, fueled and ready to take you on the first leg of your honeymoon,” he told the bride and groom.

The bride’s sons let out a loud cheer, since they were included in the first part of the trip—a visit to Disneyland. As he understood from Cooper, the two boys would then spend a few days with Shane and Jenna, two close friends in L.A. who weren’t able to make the wedding.

“A fabulous gift, William,” Kat said, her sparkly tiara slightly askew. “We appreciate it so much. We’ll be packed and ready to leave on time. I promise.”

He nodded at Jack, intending to leave, but Kat suddenly reached out and caught his sleeve. “Wait. Um, could Jack and I speak with you in private a moment?”

“Of course. Where…?”

She looked at her sons and made a scooting motion with her hand, which he couldn’t help noticing was adorned with an intricate henna tattoo. “Boys, will you please take Megan to check on the cake? We’ll be right there.”

William’s admiration for the woman grew. She was a good mum.

“I know now probably isn’t the best time and place to bring this up, but Libby got a call from Calvin—Mary’s…um husband—sorta.”

William had met the man and was aware of the octogenarian’s relationship to Libby’s late grandmother. “Yes. And…?”

Libby shifted sideways, wincing slightly as the baby she was carrying shifted position, too. “Cal’s granddaughter and her husband have been separated for about six months. According to Cal, the guy’s done everything in his power to slow down the divorce process. Then, over the holidays, Daria—that’s the granddaughter’s name—felt sorry the jerk and…  Did I mention they have two daughters? Anyway, she let him hang out with the family some and he took that to mean she wanted him back. He showed up this morning ready to move in again. Things got ugly, and now she’s afraid for her safety. And the girls’, too. I told Cal we’d do whatever we could to help.”

Cooper leaned around his wife and added, “By we she means you. As in, would you mind turning around as soon as you drop these guys off in Anaheim and fly to Fresno to pick up a battered wife and two traumatized kids?”

William’s heart rate spiked slightly. Flying was his drug of choice and he rarely passed up a chance to escape into the clouds. But messy divorces were definitely not his thing. He’d babysat more than a few clients who couldn’t pick a decent mate if their life depended on it, and, at least once, it had.

Libby gave Coop a hefty nudge with her shoulder. “Daria was clear about this to Cal—Bruce hasn’t hit her. But he did threaten her. And his family reputedly has certain underworld connections.”

“Mafia,” Cooper mouthed with an over-the-top look of mock horror.

Libby ignored him. “Cal is worried sick. He wants Daria and the girls to come here, at least until the divorce is finalized.”

The pleasant tingle of the excellent champagne on his tongue turned flat. “Give her my cell number. Weather permitting, I’ll take her anywhere she wants to go—even here.”

“Thank you,” Libby said, sniffling. “You’re the best.”

“Hey, how ‘bout a little of that hero worship for me?” Coop said, obviously trying to lighten the moment. “William might be the hotshot pilot, but it’s my plane, too.”

“That’s correct. We use Cooper’s gas,” William added. “Because he’s so full of it.”

His joke earned a chuckle from everyone at the table and shifted the focus to Coop, giving William a chance to slip away. He didn’t want anyone thinking of him as a hero. He’d already proven he couldn’t be trusted in that role. He’d give this woman a lift if she called. But chances were good she wouldn’t. And as selfish as it sounded, he hoped she tried some other avenue first. Counseling, therapy, a restraining order—anything that didn’t involve him.

“Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”

Yes. Apparently his social radar was broken. He hadn’t even heard Morgan approach the small bistro table where he was standing.

“No, Morgan,” he said. Morgana to the world, Morgan to her friends and family. And agent. “Everything’s divine.”

“Liar. Do you know how I know something’s going on with you?” She’d been his client for several years and she knew him as well as anyone did.

“You’re fidgeting. You never fidget.”

He looked at his hands. Good heavens, she was right. A napkin he couldn’t recall picking up was in a shredded heap at his feet.

“I had word today that my father is ill,” he admitted.

“He called you?” Her surprise showed on her expressive face. Morgan was one of the few who had some small inkling of the disconnect between William and his parents.

He wiped his hands on what was left of the napkin and deposited it in an empty glass. “No. Uncle Notty e-mailed.”

“You have an uncle named Naughty? How very British.”

“Short for Naughton. We’re not blood relatives. He and Father were school chums. They’ve shared a flat in London ever since Father won his election. I told you he’s a member of Parliament, right? Father is a bit of a Luddite, so Notty acts as an online go-between.”

Her gaze shifted to a point over his shoulder. Keeping track of her betrothed, no doubt. “What’s wrong with your dad?  Not the computer-hating thing—that, I get—I mean, how ill?”

William suppressed a sigh. His father had never—ever—been a dad. No tossing of a ball, no cheering on his son at a rugby match, no shooting the breeze over a pint at a local pub. Father was brilliant, high-brow, reserved. A dedicated servant of the realm. And a smoker for most of his adult life. “Lung cancer.”

“Oh, William.” She hugged him but quickly stepped back as if suddenly realizing who she was hugging. “Sorry. I know you’re not a touchy-feely kind of person, but that’s so awful. Cancer.”

“The C-word,” Jack’s sister had called it.

William’s minor involvement in the planning and execution of this wedding had put him in contact with Rachel Grey on several occasions. She’d mentioned her father’s death and her boyfriend’s remission almost in the same breath. While not privy to the details of either case, William assumed that meant the disease wasn’t a mandatory death sentence.

“Your mother’s a doctor, right? What does she think? Is it bad? Did they catch it early? Will they operate?”

Those very same questions had been ruminating around in his brain for hours, contributing to his current headache. “I have no idea. I only heard the news a few hours ago. I haven’t spoken with Mum, but Notty did mention she was returning to England.

“Does she specialize in cancer?”

No, she specializes in sainthood. “She works in third-world countries treating AIDs patients and undernourished children. I don’t know how much practical help she’ll be, but her returning is a nice gesture.”

“Gesture?” Morgan tilted her head in obvious confusion. She’d dyed her blonde hair a rich mahogany color to play the role of Libby in Sentinel Passtime, and the color made her look more serious and less like a Hollywood starlet. “She’s his wife. Aren’t sickness and health part of the vows she signed up for?”

William must have believed that at some point in his life, but sadly,  he no longer thought so—particularly where his parents were concerned. “Some marriages are less…devout than others. My parents have spent the better part of their forty-plus years of union on separate continents.”

She frowned in a way that made most men suddenly want to jump up and fix whatever might be troubling her. “But they’ve remained married so their feelings must be there on some level,” she insisted. “And she’s rushing home to nurse him. What does that tell you?”

“That Mum is a doctor first, wife second?”

“You’re a very cynical man, William Hughes-Smythe,” she said using his full name. He’d dropped the Smythe when he moved to America, thinking the combination seemed a bit pretentious when paired with the accent he couldn’t completely shake. Maybe a part of him had hoped for some sort of reaction from his parents. Outrage. Annoyance. Even relief that his underachieving choice of job wouldn’t sully the family name. There had been none.

“Merely honest. My parents live their lives. I live mine. Keeping an ocean or two between us facilitates the arrangement.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Does that mean what I think it means? You’re not going to see him?”

“I have a business to run. Clients’ hands to hold, noses to wipe.” Morgan was one of the few on his client list who didn’t need coddling. “Abused women to transport,” he added, grabbing the one straw that might deflect her obvious concern.

Before she could say anything, a piercing whistle filled the teepee. “The bride and groom are cutting the cake,” Cooper announced. “Cameras ho.”

William spotted Mac, Morgan’s fiancé—and Libby’s brother…Lord, the interconnectedness of this group made his head spin—motioning for her to join him and the little girl pulling him toward the cake cart.

Morgan turned back to William. “I have to go, but I am really sorry about your dad. And while I appreciate you helping Daria—and I know why you’re doing it—” she added, meaningfully, “I think you’re making a mistake by not going home to see your dad as soon as possible. Cancer’s wicked tricky. You never have as much time as you think you will. I mean, look at Kat.”

She pointed toward the bride and groom, dueling playfully with frosting-tipped fingers. “When Kat and Jack set this date, Kat was sure her mom would be here. Helen’s cancer was in remission, and, although she had some breathing issues, overall she seemed fine. Then, suddenly, something changed. Kat said her aunt called in hospice this morning.”

William had heard a rumor to that effect. “I appreciate your concern, my friend. Truly. And I’m very sorry to hear about Kat’s mum. Now, hurry off. Your future groom is shooting daggers my way. Be quick.” He made a shooing motion with his hands. “Mac’s a miner. He could hurt me.”

William watched her traipse across the room into the waiting arms of Mac McGannon. William liked Mac a great deal and didn’t feel the least bit threatened, but he couldn’t blame the man for feeling possessive. The couple spent a lot of time apart given Morgan’s job and Mac’s obligations in Sentinel Pass.

They planned to marry sometime in the future and William wished them all the luck in the world. He could speak volumes on the subject of long-distance marriages—at least from the point of view of a child from such a marriage. But what was there to say, after all? So he hadn’t had a storybook upbringing. What did it really matter? He’d learned a long, long time ago not to expect anything from his mother and father in the way of warm, familial exchanges. They simply weren’t that sort of people, and no amount of wishing or hoping or dreaming would ever change that.

He looked around the room at the many outwardly happy people. Morgan and Mac were wrapped in an embrace, now, smiling with such tenderness they could have been a poster for Hollywood’s next blockbuster romance.

Unfortunately, that cynical part of him knew that appearances rarely told the whole story. His father had repeated many times the tale of how he met William’s mother and was knocked “tail over toes.” “Your mum was the most confident, imperturbable woman on campus,” his father would say. “When Laurel made up her mind to do something—even marrying me—it would have taken an act of God to dissuade her.”

And while the marriage had lasted—on paper, at least—their family was a complete and utter sham. No wonder, he supposed, that while he might wish for a wife and family of his own, he had little faith that he’d ever manage to acquire one.

He turned to leave. The thought of cake made the champagne in his gut start to curdle. He’d nearly reached the exit when Libby caught up with him. “Wait. William. I. Can’t. Run.”

He turned to watch her hurrying toward him with far more grace and speed than she gave herself credit for. She grabbed his arm like an exhausted swimmer clinging to a buoy.

“I heave like a huge boat listing sideways,” she admitted. “Sometimes left. Sometimes right. Depends on how the baby is lying. At least, I hope it’s a baby. Lately, I’ve had dreams of giving birth to a hippo.”

He smiled. He couldn’t not. Libby was a delightful person. Since she’d moved into Cooper’s Malibu home, which was only a few miles up the beach from William’s own house, William had noticed a distinct and positive change in his previously flighty, slightly manic friend. Libby was bedrock, even when balanced on the fault line that was Hollywood. “How much longer?”

“Till I explode?” She patted her belly. “Three weeks, they say. But what do they know? Hippos sometimes have minds of their own.”

William laughed. “I don’t think it would matter to Coop if you actually did give birth to a hippo. The man is obnoxiously happy about the prospect of becoming a father.”

She cast a glance over her shoulder toward the sounds of merriment in the teepee. “I know. He’s still a kid at heart, so he’ll be a great dad. Um…while we’re on the subject, Morgan just told me about your father.”

He blinked in surprise. “That was fast. Gossip at the speed of sound?”

She fished her phone out of the pocket of her simple but glamorous cashmere sweater. “Text message. Even faster.” She threw her arms around him. “I’m so sorry, William. I had no idea when I asked you to fly Daria here. We’ll make other arrangements. Cal will understand. Family is everything to him, and he’d never want to be the cause of you not making it back to England in time. Truly, it’s—”

He stopped her. “Libby. Your compassion is as genuine as it is misplaced. I only got the news about Father’s condition today. There’s a great deal of doctoring to be done. I’m not privy to all the details, but I’m quite confident he will still be with us after I help Cal’s granddaughter.”

She didn’t appear convinced, so he changed the subject. “Speaking of Cal’s granddaughter, isn’t Daria the name of Cooper’s former secretary? The one who ran off with his first ex-wife?”

Libby rolled her eyes. “I was hoping no one would remember that. Trust me, the two women have nothing in common except their name. Cooper’s assistant was a twenty-year-old opportunist looking for a shortcut to fame and riches. Cal’s Daria is a stay-at-home mom by choice. She has a college degree but quit working to be home with her daughters.” She patted her tummy. “Something I understand completely. Now.”

William wondered how different his life might have been if his mum had chosen to live in the same country as he, let alone the same house. That kind of devotion and selflessness deserved to be honored and protected. “I’ll do whatever I can to facilitate her decision.”

She patted his arm in a very motherly manner. “I know you will, William. You’re the most gallant man I know.”

She gave him a soft peck on the cheek then waddled back toward the crowd.

Gallant? He gave a wry smile and shook his head. The word brought to mind sword play and white chargers. He was nobody’s white knight. He might have aspired to the role at one time, but he’d learned the hard way that he didn’t have what it took, and an innocent person had paid the price. Maybe that was the real reason he couldn’t say no to helping this Daria woman and her children.

They called it penance.

~~

“Whatcha doing, Mommy? Can I help?”

Daria Fontina looked up from the two enormous plastic storage containers she’d bought that morning at the post-holiday clearance sale to see her youngest daughter standing in the doorway of the family room watching her. Daria had been meaning to organize their Christmas decorations for years, and now seemed like the perfect time. Half for her, half for him.

“Taking down the tree, sweetie. Christmas is over. It’s time to move on,” she told Hailey, who was tossing the shiny black ball she’d received in her stocking Christmas morning, a gift from the Santa Claus she no longer believed in—thanks to her sister.

“I’d love your help. What does the Magic 8 Ball say about putting away Christmas ornaments?”

Hailey shook the plastic orb vigorously, then peered at the little window on the bottom. “It says…’Seems likely!'”

She and Daria both laughed.

Hailey, who was five going on fifty, and her older sister Miranda were Daria’s purpose for living, her one true joy, her passion and her drug. Her love for them was probably partly to blame for the Grand Canyon-size wedge that had grown between Daria and Bruce over the years. That and his election to the State House of Representatives in Sacramento. Two worlds and three hundred miles apart.

He hadn’t understood how much they’d grown apart until last August when she’d asked him for a divorce. In the five months that they’d been separated, Bruce had done everything in his power to prevent the inevitable from happening—further proof of their complete and utter disconnect, in her opinion.

Still, they’d agreed to a cease-fire over the holidays. “For the girls’ sake,” he’d claimed, but Daria was certain he wanted the détente to prove to his family that he was still in control. She’d expected there to be fireworks, but Bruce had been a complete gentleman. In fact, his courtly, model behavior had reminded her so much of the man she’d fallen in love with and married, she’d almost—almost—started to have second thoughts about the divorce.

“See the two piles? You can start wrapping the more delicate ornaments and putting them in this box for Daddy.” She scooted sideways and patted a spot beside her on the plush white carpet. Bruce’s pick. Only a man who wasn’t part of the day-to-day business of living with two young children would insist on white carpet.

“When is Daddy moving home?” Hailey asked, joining her.

Daria nearly dropped the fragile glass ball in her hands. “I’m sorry—what? Honey…” she said, brushing aside a lock of the child’s thick curls to see her eyes. “Daddy isn’t moving back in with us. He was only here to see you open your presents and have Christmas Eve dinner with us before midnight Mass, like always.”

Hailey frowned. “But Miranda said Daddy was coming back with some of his stuff today. She heard him talking to Grandma when we went to her house for Christmas.”

Traditionally, the entire Fontina clan gathered at Bruce’s parents’ on Boxing Day for their holiday celebration. This year Daria had enjoyed a peaceful, catch-up day doing absolutely nothing. A first. “He told Grandma you were done being mad at him. That you kissed and made up.”

Daria’s cheeks flushed with heat and she quickly returned to wrapping ornaments. Damn. Make one little mistake and look what happens. She wished she could blame the holidays or that extra glass of wine she and Bruce had shared after they’d put the girls to bed, but she knew that wasn’t why she’d done what she had. It had been watching Bruce read The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree—a book that had been Daria’s favorite as a child—to Hailey that had softened her heart so much she was completely powerless to resist Bruce’s tentative, wounded-little-boy kiss under the mistletoe.

Which, of course, had led to a much more fiery exchange that had wound up in the bedroom they’d shared for twelve years. She was human, after all, and all the women’s magazines made a point of saying that she was at her sexual peak. She’d caved in to need and nostalgia. Once. She’d slept with her husband. Once. Then sternly insisted he go back to his mother’s house instead of spending the night. “I don’t want to confuse the girls,” she’d told him.

Now, it turned out, she’d done just that.”Well, my sweet girl, I wish that a kiss was all it took to fix what was wrong with Mommy and Daddy’s marriage, but that isn’t the case. We talked about this with the family counselor, remember? Daddy and I both love you and Miranda no matter what, but we can’t live together and make each other happy.”

Hailey’s index finger began inching upward toward her right nostril—a bad habit that had gotten worse the past few months. Daria handed the little girl a sheet of crumpled tissue paper to distract her. “Would you like to wrap the ornaments that your great-grandmother brought over from Italy? I’m putting all the special Fontina family ornaments in this container.— For Bruce to put on his own damn tree next year.

“Can I?” Hailey beamed, her light brown curls framing her beautiful round face. She still had a few charming pounds of baby fat that made her look younger than her age, but she was smarter than any five-year-old Daria had ever met. Sober, quiet, thoughtful—pensive, even. Proof in Daria’s mind that her daughter had seen and heard too much within the walls of this two-story McMansion that Daria hated. “I’ll be extra careful. Daddy says these are very old and valuable.”

To Hester, maybe. Daria’s soon-to-be-ex-mother-in-law had made such a big deal of presenting Daria with the set of eight—now, seven—white-and-gold-flecked glass globes, you would have thought the gilding was fourteen-karat. In Daria’s opinion, the balls were ostentatious and cheaply made, which was why they broke so easily. “They’re only things, my love. Do the best you can.”

Daria started filling the second box with things she’d accumulated before her marriage. Her mother had bought her a dated ornament every year she’d been alive. They were funny, silly, sentimental, and all very special to Daria, but she would never berate her daughters or make them dig into their allowance money if one broke, as Bruce had last year, ruining everyone’s Christmas Eve.

“Here, sweetie,” Daria said, grabbing the tree skirt she’d folded and set aside earlier. “Let’s use this to add some packing between layers.”

The handmade quilted skirt was adorned with gold ribbon and sequins. Daria had never seen anything like it, and while she gave Hester credit for the tremendous amount of time and effort it must have taken to make it, Daria hated the darn thing. Always had. She found it gaudy and sort of cheesy, and yet, she’d used it for twelve Christmases without argument.

Wuss, she silently chided.

Some battles weren’t worth fighting, though, she’d decided a long time ago. If that made her a coward, so be it. But this was the last holiday she’d put the ugly thing around the base of her tree. She’d only used it this time as a sort of peace offering. Plus, money was tight, thanks to Bruce’s legal shenanigans.

“Oh, Mommy, look. Here’s your Kermit ornament,” Hailey said, digging the spindly green object out of Bruce’s pile. “Uh-oh. His ski is broken. I didn’t do it, Mommy.”The tremor in her daughter’s voice fueled the quietly stoked fire that burned in Daria’s belly. Her hand was trembling as she reached out to stroke her daughter’s hair. “I know that, my love. Kermit lost his ski a long time ago. When I was in college, I think.”

“Did you get in trouble?”

“No. It was an accident. And, even though I like Kermit a lot, he’s just a thing. And things aren’t as important as people.”

“That’s right, Hailey,” a voice said from the doorway behind them.

Daria and Hailey both jumped guiltily. Kermit fell between them as Hailey flew into her arms. Daria could feel her daughter’s heart racing against her own.

“Your mother knows all about how important people are. Especially the people in your family.”

“Hello, Bruce,” Daria said, trying to sound calm and in control. She patted Hailey’s arm and eased her to one side. “I didn’t hear the bell. Did Miranda let you in?”

He stood with arms folded across his chest, leaning against the door jamb. She guessed that he’d been leisurely eavesdropping for quite a while. In the past, she’d been able to sense where he was at any given moment that he was home—behavior typical of people living in highly charged abusive environments, she’d learned in one of the counseling sessions her lawyer had encouraged her to attend.

Their months apart must have removed her edge.

“Hi, Daddy.”

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