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Authors: Sue MacKay

From Duty to Daddy

BOOK: From Duty to Daddy
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Swapping the firing line…

Army medic Marshall Hunter has never been able to get beautiful Charlie Lang out of his head, but despite their unforgettable fling his commitment to the forces leaves no time for relationships. Two years on he’s unable to pass up one last opportunity to see Charlie again! Except the little girl playing in her garden proves that she’s been able to move on even if he hasn’t….

…for fatherhood!

Only, Charlie has a life-changing surprise in store for Marshall….

Charlie glanced back at Aimee, but she’d become engrossed in pushing a toy truck around the pit. Locking the gate-latch, Charlie spun around to join her father.

And froze.

The driver had climbed out of the car, cursing quietly as he surveyed the damage he’d caused. His American accent sliced into her.

“Marshall?” The name squeaked off her tongue as her heart stopped. “
Marshall?”
Louder this time but just as scratchy.

He turned in her direction and took away any lingering doubt as his intense green gaze locked with hers. In that instant she saw the man she’d shared a bed with for many wonderful hours. Her body remembered all the heat and passion, the sensual touches, and her deep, bottomless hunger for him.

Marshall Hunter.

The man she’d spent untold hours trying to find for their daughter had turned up outside her gate.

Dear Reader,

Taupo is one of those places from my childhood that I’ve never forgotten. We went there so my dad could go trout fishing. It was a much smaller town than nowadays; the houses were small, plain holiday homes, the footpaths unpaved, and no one was in a hurry. I have been back often for holidays, staying with my brother and his family, and seen Taupo grow into a busy, vibrant town. Despite the changes it is still the same wonderful place at the edge of a stunning lake and with a backdrop of mountains.

I chose Taupo for Charlie and Marshall’s story as it seemed the perfect setting for a wounded hero trying to find his place in life. It’s the antithesis to his constantly changing army life. It’s where Charlie grew up, where she went to school, learned to sail on the lake, where her mother is buried, where her daughter was born.

Marshall has never lived in the same place for much longer than a year at a time. Charlie has never lived anywhere else than in the house that was her mother’s family home. Does Charlie give this up to follow Marshall’s erratic lifestyle? Or does Marshall take the plunge and learn to stay put in one place long enough to get to know it and the inhabitants well? Follow these two as they nudge their way towards the right solution for them both.

I’d love to hear from you at
[email protected]
.

Or visit my place at
www.suemackay.co.nz
.

Cheers!

Sue

FROM DUTY TO DADDY

Sue MacKay

Also by Sue MacKay:

THE GIFT OF A CHILD
YOU, ME AND A FAMILY
THE DANGERS OF DATING YOUR BOSS

These books are also available in ebook format from
www.Harlequin.com
.

Hannah, Phil and Austin—you rock.
Love you heaps.

CHAPTER ONE

C
HARLIE
L
ANG
FOLDED
her laptop shut and put it aside on the outdoor lounger she sat on, but continued to stare at the blasted thing as though it was to blame for all of her problems. Angst at her continued failure ate deep inside. ‘I’m never going to find him, am I?’

Dad sat back on his haunches at the edge of the overgrown flowerbed he was weeding below where she sat. ‘Aimee’s father? Who knows, love? You’ve got so little to go on.’

Make that next to nothing. ‘How many doctors are there in the US army called Marshall Hunter?’ Her head spun with the frustration of it all, whizzing the ever-present fear into a maelstrom in the pit of her stomach. ‘I must’ve sent hundreds of emails.’

‘I take it the latest one bounced.’

‘Yep.’ Like every one before it. ‘Why did he give me that address if he intended shutting it down?’ Why had Marshall given her an address at all when he’d gone to great lengths to ensure she’d understood there couldn’t be any contact between them after their fling finished?

On that last day, when he’d been heading back to war and she would shortly return to New Zealand, had he felt a sense of losing something special? She’d certainly been gripped by an awareness of impending loss. Had he suddenly found it impossible to walk away without some way of reaching her again? His note with the email address had been slipped into her shirt pocket while she’d been too busy kissing him goodbye and trying desperately not to cry. Trying to ignore the heat flaring through her body that one touch from Marshall had instantly triggered. Had always triggered—right from the get-go.

But he must’ve had another change of heart after he’d left Honolulu because not once had an email of hers got through to him. Fickle? Doubtful. Unsure of himself? Definitely not. Marshall had to be the most self-assured man she’d ever come across. Except when she’d asked about his family. Uncertainty had filtered into his steady green gaze then, only to be hurriedly blinked away and replaced with a cold, distant glare.

She’d understood instantly that to remain onside with him meant talk of his family was banned. Naturally, living with the outcome of that fling, she often wondered what he’d been hiding. Not that that was important right now. Only finding him was.

‘Ever thought that the guy doesn’t want to be found?’ Dad never minced his words when he wanted to make a point.

‘If I’m honest, it’s blatantly obvious that’s exactly what Marshall intended. In this day and age everyone puts their name, photo, even excruciatingly personal details out there in cyberspace so they can be found.’ Everyone except Marshall Hunter. Which kind of told her what she’d been avoiding all along.

He really hadn’t had any intention of ever having anything to do with her again—even in passing. That note had been an aberration she could put down to the emotional goodbye they’d been going through. Each kiss had been their last, only to be followed by another, and another, until Marshall’s friend had hauled him away and into an army truck.

She’d stood, fingers pressing his kisses deep into her swollen lips, trying to keep Marshall’s touch, his scent with her. Swallowing buckets of tears as the truck had disappeared round a corner, taking Marshall away forever.

Dad broke into her memories. ‘Maybe you should drop your search.’ He’d been sceptical right from the start about the man who’d got his daughter pregnant. Fair enough, she supposed. Fathers expected every man coming within reach of their girls to treat them carefully.

But what Dad wouldn’t concede was that Marshall didn’t have a clue she’d had his child, wouldn’t believe that Marshall was a good man at heart. Of course, Dad hadn’t met him.

She knew different. Or so she told herself regularly. ‘No, I refuse to contemplate that.’ Marshall had affected her deeply the very first time she’d laid eyes on him in the ED at the hospital in Honolulu where she had been doing post-grad work. His intense gaze had locked with hers and they’d both stepped closer as he’d teased her about her accent. When he’d smiled at her she’d felt as though she’d found something, someone she’d been unwittingly looking for all her life.

At the end of their shift he’d taken her hand and led her out of the department, out of the hospital and along the road to the beach. Walking barefoot in the warm sand, the waves crashing only metres away, her hand firmly held by Marshall’s much larger and stronger one and her shoulder brushing his arm, she’d thought she’d died and gone to heaven.

And in the warm air, with laughter and chatter spilling out from the restaurants dotting the foreshore, he’d taken her in his arms and kissed her so thoroughly her body had melted. She’d held onto him like he was a lifeline. Her body had wanted his, craved the release she’d known he, and only he, could bring her. Every nerve ending had desired his touch. Every muscle had trembled with anticipation.

Then he’d swung her up into his arms and run up the sand, across the road and into the first hotel they’d come to. She had always wondered what might’ve happened if a room hadn’t been available. There’d been no way they could’ve made it all the way to the tawdry apartment block where the hospital provided rooms for temporary doctors before they gave in to the pulsing heat gripping them.

Their affair had started that night in a burst of passion that had been insatiable. It ended as abruptly two weeks later when Marshall had been sent away to some unknown place with his army troop.

She’d missed him ever since, as though he’d taken a chunk from her heart with him. Damn it. That hadn’t been part of the deal. Neither had coming home pregnant.

‘I wouldn’t be looking for him if not for Aimee.’ Yeah, sure. Her pride would’ve prevented her chasing after him like some lovelorn teenager. Did she love him? She’d enjoyed him and the things they’d got up to in bed. But love him? Unfortunately she had a feeling she did. Otherwise why else did she still dream of him most nights? What other reason was there for daydreaming about him moving here and sharing her home? Maybe marrying her?

Reaching for the laptop, she opened it and waited for her program to reboot. Reality sucked. And hurt. Her love wouldn’t ever be returned, and yet it was vitally important she track him down. For Aimee’s sake, at least. ‘I always knew there was no future for us.’

Dad gave her one of his ‘This is your father talking’ looks that she’d known all her life. It would lead into something she should probably take note of. Except she was an adult now, didn’t need her father’s wisdom. Much.

‘Why don’t you stop trying to find this guy for a while? Save your energy for getting completely well again and then maybe it won’t be essential for Aimee to have her dad here.’ He tried to hide the quiver of fear colouring his voice but she knew him too well.

Staring at her dad, holding onto the surge of her own fear, she ground out, ‘I have to find him. Aimee deserves a father, even if only a remote one.’ Would Marshall be thrilled or furious when he finally learned her news? There was only one way to find out and so far that hadn’t gone too well.

‘You’ve put too much time and effort into this for most of the past year. Let it go for a while. Put it out there and see what comes back.’

‘Dad? Put it out there?’ Despite everything, a giggle spilled across her lips. ‘Where did you get that idea?’

Dad’s cheeks coloured. ‘From your pal, Gemma.’

‘That’s typical of Gemma, but I never thought I’d hear you say it.’ Gemma and Dad? Had she missed something? Gemma often dropped by on the pretext of seeing her and Aimee but what if her older friend’s real interest was Dad? How did that make her feel? No blinding pangs of anger or disappointment struck. Surely that had to tell her something?

‘Charlie,’ Dad called loudly to get her attention back. ‘What I’m saying is there are other things you could be doing with your time rather than getting obsessed about something you’ve got no control over.’

She sat back in the lounger and stared at the laptop screen. Her finger hovered over the pad, ready to open the internet link. Could she stop searching? For a while at least? Take a break from the heart-wrenching negativity that failure to find Marshall regularly dumped on her when she already had enough to deal with?

It wouldn’t be easy when finding Marshall had dominated her thoughts for what seemed like for ever. This campaign had driven her to get up in the mornings when her body ached so badly she wanted to swallow pills and dive back into sleep to avoid the real world.

Doing what Dad had suggested might free her. Enable her to see the situation for what it was. She was a solo mother whose first priority was her daughter. Aimee needed her healthy and focused, not slumbering in self-pity and trying to do the impossible.

She closed down the laptop. Then she looked at her father, really looked, and saw the extra lines on his face, there because of her. Her chest swelled with love. ‘Okay, Dad, here’s the deal. I’ll...’ she emphasised her words by flicking her forefingers in the air ‘...put finding Marshall out there if you start focusing on getting your old life back. I don’t mean working longer hours at the medical centre. I’m talking fishing, hiking in the mountains, meeting your pals for a round of golf.’

Pausing, she watched the longing flick through his eyes so fast he probably thought he’d got away with it. She really had wrecked his life since coming home from Honolulu. Sticking her tongue in her cheek, she added, ‘Did I mention dating? Definitely need to find time for that.’ Should she bring Gemma’s name into it? No, best leave that to Dad to sort out. For now anyway. She could give him a prod later if necessary.

‘Dating?’ he snorted. ‘Me? At my age? You’ve been taking too many painkillers again.’

‘Yeah, Dad, you. At your ripe old age of fifty-nine.’ Thankfully right then a sound came from inside the house. Charlie usually heard her daughter crying almost before Aimee opened her mouth. Motherhood was so connected. As though a fine but strong strand of love ran between them so that deep inside she felt everything Aimee did.

‘There goes my peace and quiet.’ Charlie smiled, completely unfazed by the interruption.

Despite helping other women bring their babies into the world during her medical training, the overpowering strength of her love for one special little individual placed into her arms moments after the birth had been a revelation. And something Marshall had missed out on.

Her father chuckled as he returned to weeding the flowerbed beneath a pohutukawa tree. Obviously not too fazed by the dating suggestion, then. ‘Go on with you. You’ve been waiting for Aimee to wake up for the last hour.’

‘True.’ Driven by a sense of panic, of time running away on her and not knowing how long she’d be around for Aimee, she desperately wanted to grab every minute she could with her little girl. That same panic caused her to pause now. Was she forcing too much on Aimee? Rushing her through life instead of letting her learn to wait? To take each day, each little step slowly?

‘You should let her cry for a bit.’ Dad unwittingly underlined her thoughts. Sitting back on his haunches, he winked to take the edge off his comment. ‘Never hurt you to wait for your mother to come and get you at that age.’

Charlie laughed, and deliberately refrained from standing up, even though she itched to do so. ‘Maybe that’s why I used to hate lying around in bed once I woke up.’

‘Nah, that was because you were too active for your own good.’

‘I got that from you. Aimee’s the same. Guess it’s in the Lang genes.’ A yawn rolled up her throat and over her lips. It had been a long time since she’d been anything like too active. So long she’d forgotten how it felt to have abundant energy, not to need to go to bed till well after midnight.

When she’d finally gone back to work at the Taupo Family Medical Centre after her illness she’d truly believed she was ready for anything and everything, but her days off couldn’t come round soon enough so she could catch up on sleep. Not easy to do around a toddler with the energy of a trailer load of Energiser batteries.

‘Want me to get Aimee?’ Worry tainted Dad’s voice, adding to her sense of inadequacy. Not to mention her guilt for letting him see that yawn.

She tried for a grin, didn’t do too bad a job. ‘I’m making her wait, like you said.’

Dad grinned right back. ‘Look at you. Almost bouncing in the seat with wanting to go pick her up.’

He did way too much for her. It broke her heart, knowing that when he’d decided to take early retirement so he could start having some fun she’d messed up his plans. Not that she’d asked him to cancel the big trip to Europe he’d looked forward to for years. But being the awesome father he was there’d been no question of what he’d do when they’d learned her dreadful news. He had stepped up for her all her life. More especially after Mum had died. And now he did the same for Aimee.

Would she be half the parent he was? Some days that worried her sick. On the really bleak ones it frightened her to think she mightn’t get the chance to find out.

Aimee had evoked something primal within her. Like flicking a switch, bang, the love had turned on. Never to be turned off. A deep, unconditional love that had fine-tuned Charlie’s protective instincts, while also bringing so much joy to her life. She couldn’t wait for the years ahead to unfold. Already she watched with avarice as Aimee learned to feed herself, to stagger up onto her own feet and totter around the house, to give sticky hugs with those little arms—it all gave her so much pleasure. There’d be plenty more great things to come. She just knew it.

Wearing her Pollyanna hat? Definitely, though
she wasn’t so naive as to think her daughter was going to be perfect.
Actually, perfection was a fault in itself. Not so long ago she’d believed her life couldn’t get any better and look how that had blown up in her face. She was still recovering, might never return to the peaceful state of mind she’d innocently thought was hers for ever.

She shivered, rubbed her arms. Forced a smile. Pollyanna had quickly disappeared. The black worry that lurked at the edge of her mind expelled her happy moments all too quickly. Would that change one day? One day soon?

BOOK: From Duty to Daddy
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