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Authors: Carly Phillips

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BOOK: Summer Lovin
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Of the swine variety, if he wasn't mistaken.

“It can't be,” he muttered.

“It is,” Zoe retorted.

He hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud.

“And you will be nice about it.” She treated him to a forced smile.

He rose and stepped around the couch to catch his first glimpse of the…pig. A tiny, black-and-white pig. Snout and all. “It's gratifying to know my hearing's not going.”

“Your mind's not playing tricks on you, either,” Zoe said helpfully.

“Gee, thanks.”

Elena leaned down beside Sam and patted the space beside her. “Come sit quietly.”

Sam did as Elena instructed, both women sitting cross-legged on the floor. Everyone else had grown silent, too, respecting the fact that the tiny piglet was shaking like a leaf.

“Sam, meet Ima. Ima, meet Sam,” Elena said, lifting the pig and placing her gently in Sam's lap.

“Ima?” Sam asked. She paused, her nose crinkling as she thought about the name. “Oh I get it!” she finally said and began giggling.

“I don't,” Ryan muttered.

Every eye in the room turned his way.

“I'm a pig, doofus,” Sam said, grinning. “Get it? Her name's Ima Pig.” When Ryan didn't answer right away, Sam rolled her eyes. “See, Zoe, I told you he's got a—”

“Samantha!” Elena and Nicholas said at the same time.

Elena gently took Sam's chin in her hand and turned her face toward her own. “Be nice to Mr. Baldwin. He's a guest in our home and he's your elder. In this house we respect our elders.”

Sam glanced down before looking his way, her features contrite. “Sorry, mister,” she said, her hands gripping the old keys around her neck.

Ryan struggled for air. She was being reprimanded for being fresh to him while he sat here and lied to her face. It wasn't right or fair. The charade he'd begun had already started to weigh on him and he wondered how he'd manage to play social worker for any stretch of time.

“That's okay,” he managed to tell her. “It's your birthday and you're excited. I understand.” Though he sensed it wouldn't matter what day it was. Sam's tough exterior had been formed long ago.

Excusing himself, he made his way into the kitchen. Above the whispers of the family, he heard Elena's instructions about how to care for the animal, how not to scare it, how Ima would think anyone coming for her from above was a predator and so Sam should always approach the pig from the side. She'd obviously done her research on the care and feeding of pigs. If her actions with Sam were any indication, Elena Costas was a loving, caring parent and the thought scared him spitless.

But he was Sam's uncle. Her flesh and blood. Surely that counted for something…didn't it?

 

S
ITTING IN HER FAMILY HOME
and watching Sam unwrap gifts reminded Zoe of past birthdays and holidays. All involving family fun and unbelievable presents. Zoe remembered the dog she'd been given for her tenth birthday. Ari had received a cat. And somehow, maybe because the Costases had said so, they'd all gotten along, she recalled. This feeling of family made her whole and she wanted the same for Sam.

That's why Zoe had let Ryan watch her family interact with the teenager for a while before she'd come up beside him, and why she gave him a few minutes alone in the kitchen to think things over before joining him in the other room. She wanted him to realize how well Sam fit in with them.

“Hey there, Mr. Social Worker, how's it going?” she asked.

“It's fine and I'm confused. She's really excited about the pig,” he said, shaking his head.

“It's a legal pet to replace the monkey. Not replace it in her heart, but in the house—”

“I get it. I just couldn't believe your mother walked in with a freaking pig.”

Zoe blinked, startled. Something told her Mr. Uptight, Conservative Bostonian didn't curse often. “A Vietnamese potbellied pig, in case you were wondering.”

“I wasn't.”

“Liar.”

To her surprise, he burst out laughing. “Are you people for real?”

“Last time I checked.” She nodded toward her family gathered in the other room. “We may be different, but we love each other so if you're thinking you can use our uniqueness against us—”

“Whoa.” He held up a hand. “I didn't mean anything except you're all nothing like what I'm used to.”

Zoe stopped, smiled slightly, then placed her hand on the back of his larger one and gently pushed it down, keeping her fingers lightly closed around his. “And what would that be? Proper decorum at all times,” she teased softly.

A dimpled grin worked its way across his face, but his stare remained fixed on their hands. She suspected he also felt the heat passing between them.

No doubt he needed an explanation for her behavior when they were supposed to be on opposing sides. She wished she could understand it herself. How could she be so attracted to a man she knew was lying? A man who was, in essence, forcing
her
to lie to her family?

Yet she
was
attracted. Very attracted. Enough that she couldn't control the smiles he evoked or the warmth surging through her body right now.

He also deserved an explanation. “What can I say? You may be a lying creep, but you interest me.” In fact, her insides tingled, making her aware of sensations that had been dormant for a while. She couldn't remember the last time simply touching a man had caused her breasts to grow heavy and her nipples to tighten against her shirt.

Oh yes, she liked how this man made her feel.

When she'd worked for the Secret Service, the agency had frowned on mixing work and pleasure. She'd resented the rule at the time and had bent it on occasion, but with Ryan's relationship to Sam between them, she'd be smart to follow a no-fraternization rule now.

On the other hand, he was hard to resist; his pull was magnetic. And he'd be around for a few weeks, underfoot, watching them and getting to know Sam. She couldn't deny the desire to get to know him equally well. Without a doubt she knew he'd give her all the heat she desperately needed without being any threat to her resolution to advance her career and her life. It was an ideal situation.

“You see? Not only are you one big, loving group, but you say what you think.” He shook his head in disbelief.

She swung their clasped hands back and forth. “Better than keeping your feelings bottled up until you explode.”

“Or run away,” he muttered.

She paused. “Your sister?”

He nodded. “She chafed under rules and restrictions.”

“And your parents had a lot of them?” she guessed without too much difficulty.

“You could say that. Ever hear the term
upper crust?

“Of course.”

“Well imagine all that term implies. My brother and I conformed. She didn't.”

Zoe raised an eyebrow, interested in his background for reasons that went beyond Sam. “How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

“There were three of us in total. There's the oldest, J.T., then came Faith, then me.” His eyes glazed over at the mention of his sister's name.

“So Faith was the only girl.”

He nodded. “My parents had high hopes for her. They expected her to have a traditional coming-out when she turned sixteen, but Faith was anything but traditional.”

Being so close to her family, and knowing what Ari had gone through when Zoe'd had to fake her disappearance, she could empathize with his pain over his sister.

She squeezed his hand tight. “I really am sorry.” And she was, despite that he might want to take Sam away. “So your folks must be thrilled that you've found Sam.” Her voice caught in her throat, this time at
her
pain over the fear of losing someone.

“My family is adjusting to the news,” he said vaguely. “So how do you care for a pig?”

A not-so-subtle change of subject and Zoe made a mental note to mention it to Quinn and Connor during their meeting tomorrow morning. Planning the discussion at the office seemed like an even better idea now, since she didn't want to run the risk of Sam or anyone else in the family overhearing. And now that she'd found out some more information on Ryan Baldwin, she decided to play along with his topic change.

“You can feed and train the pig like any other domestic animal. Don't you read the papers? George Clooney has one and he loves that animal more than any woman he's met yet. Want to go meet Ima?” she asked.

“Ima Pig,” he said and shuddered. “No thanks. I'll avoid it for now.”

“Chicken.” Zoe grinned. “So where are you staying?”

“Trump Plaza.”

“All the way in Atlantic City?” she asked. With their house right by the beach, there were a number of small, but nice hotels and motels closer to Ocean Isle.

“It's only twenty minutes according to AAA.”

She rolled her eyes. “Let me guess. A motel close by never even crossed your highfalutin mind.”

He opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head. “Never mind. You already seem to have my number.”

“That I do, Mr. Baldwin. Just tell me that you're going to honor our deal.” Because she had no choice but to trust him.

Trust that he wouldn't go to Social Services and announce his status as Sam's uncle. Trust that he wouldn't tell her parents and completely freak them out, sending them into a tailspin and likely triggering a reaction she didn't even want to imagine. And worse, she had to trust that he wouldn't tell Sam.

Zoe swallowed hard.

This time he squeezed her hand tight. She'd grown so comfortable, she'd forgotten they were still standing that way.

“I realize you don't know me well and that I just showed up out of nowhere and turned your life upside down. But if there's one thing I can promise you, it's that despite my social-worker lie, I'm a man of my word. If I make you a promise, you can believe in me.” His voice grew low and husky.

“And?” she asked.

“And I promise to keep my end of the deal.” Those deep brown eyes met hers, warm and compelling. Sexy and real.

She had to be a fool—because she believed him. “I have a meeting tomorrow morning so I'd appreciate it if you didn't show up here until after noon.”

He nodded. “I can do that.”

She had one more question before she walked him to the door. “What do you do that you can take time off so easily and hang around Ocean Isle until this gets resolved?”

“I'm a lawyer.”

Swell, she thought, but she'd had to ask. “Family practice, I take it?”

He shook his head. “I might have conformed better than my sister, but there are still things I do my own way.” In his gaze, she thought she saw a hint of mischief. A sexual warning of sorts.

But then she reminded herself that this was Mr. Conservative and she had to be mistaken. Still, she couldn't help but think of him doing things to her
his own way.

“I'll keep that in mind,” she heard herself say before pulling him back to the family for his goodbyes.

 

T
HE NEXT DAY
, Zoe showed up early for the meeting with her partners so she could prep what to tell the two men. Both had a soft spot for very few people, but Sam was at the top of their list. Now Zoe paced the office space she, Quinn and Connor had recently rented, located about a block from the rec center where the men volunteered and where Sam hung out after school. On a clear day like today, the large office windows provided a nice view of the ocean. It was a decent amount of space for their rental money. All that was missing was a firm name, but what had been a priority yesterday seemed insignificant today in comparison to the problem Ryan Baldwin presented.

“Are you going to tell us what's wrong or are you just going to wear out the new carpet?” Quinn asked, his voice tight with frustration.

Zoe groaned and detailed all she'd learned from Ryan yesterday, including his true identity.

“He's Sam's
what?
” Quinn yelled, shaking the walls if not the foundation.

Zoe winced. If anyone had a stake in Sam's future, it was the man who'd secured her first one foster home, then another in an effort to find her a good, solid home. Being a product of the foster-care system, Quinn understood only too well how abandoned, traumatized and confused Sam would feel upon learning the truth.

If
it was the truth. But after a few hours in Ryan's company, Zoe believed him.

She handed Quinn the papers Ryan had given her. “I'd handle digging into Baldwin's family and background myself except that I want to be around the house at all times. I don't want him alone with Sam, or my parents, for that matter. I need what little control I can get over him and this situation.”

BOOK: Summer Lovin
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