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Excerpt for SECRETS

HQN Books
December 2007, ISBN: 0373772823

Genre: Contemporary Suspense

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Just the sound of the word appealed to him. It hadn't always been so. Once Kyle Sterling had considered it a pointless waste of time and effort. But that seemed a lifetime ago, long before the accident, and now he savored the bittersweet flavor of revenge.

The antique clock on the hand-hewn mantel ticked off the endless seconds of the long afternoon. With each sweep of the second hand, Kyle vowed to get even with his ex-wife for the needless pain she had unwittingly inflicted upon his child. He sat at his desk and stared at the phone, as if by watching the black instrument he could make it ring. It didn't.

Impatiently he strode across the airy room. At the bar he paused and then poured himself a stiff shot of bourbon. One hand rubbed his neck to loosen the tension in his shoulder muscles as he paced restlessly before the wide bay window and the view of the serene Pacific Ocean. He frowned into his glass and absently swirled the amber liquid. Deep lines of worry surrounded his piercing gray eyes when he examined his life. He didn't like what he saw. For thirty-seven years he had been kidding himself, caught in the reckless struggle for success.

The last ten years had taught him much: the shallow value of wealth, the folly of quick friendships and the brutal reality that a man had to stand alone, trust his own instincts and survey the rest of the world as the enemy. Kyle's thin lips twisted into a grim line of self-contempt that hardened the rugged angles of his famous features. Some people might call his ideology paranoid, or at the very least jaded. Kyle Sterling saw it as the simple truth, taught him by the mistress of deceit, his ex-wife, Rose Sterling. Or Sterling Rose, as she preferred to be known. Because of Rose, Kyle had learned a seething passion for revenge.

He seriously doubted that he would be foolish enough to trust a woman again, and he found that he really didn't give a damn one way or the other. The less he had to do with the opposite sex, the better. This whole wretched week had only reinforced his opinions, and he realized that his daughter was the only thing that really mattered to him.

He drained his drink, set the empty glass on the window ledge and loosened his tie. Though he expected a visitor later in the day, he didn't care that he looked as dog-tired as he felt. Ryan Woods was coming over later in the day to talk about business. Kyle had long awaited Ryan's report. He should have been anticipating the afternoon with relish, but he wasn't. No matter how he tried, Kyle couldn't take his mind off his child and his fear for her.

After contemplating another drink, Kyle rejected the idea and drummed his fingers restlessly on the polished surface of the cool window frame. His stormy gray gaze moved over the craggy cliffs on which his Spanish-style manor stood. He had to squint against the ever lowering sun. In the distance, brightly colored sailboats skimmed elegantly on the horizon, breaking the expanse of aquamarine sky and sea.

"Ring, damn you!" he muttered through clenched teeth as he glanced malevolently at the phone. Beads of sweat collected on the back of his neck, and his nerves were stretched to the breaking point. Yesterday's visit to the hospital and the gut-wrenching scene with his daughter still haunted him.

He remembered Holly's strained face, flushed and wet with hot tears. Her dark eyes were filled with anger, and her voice echoed down the hospital hallways when she screamed at him. "Go away. I hate you, Daddy…I don't want you here. I don't. Just go away and leave me alone, like you always have. I don't need you anymore!" The white bed sheet had been twisted in her fingers, and the nurses had had to subdue her. The last picture in his mind was of Holly holding her face in her hands and sobbing hysterically, her slim shoulders shaking from the ordeal. She looked young and pale in the sterile white room. At the doctor's request, Kyle had left the hospital, but Holly's words had continued to reverberate dully in his mind.

He raked his fingers through his coarse hair and glanced once again at the clock. How long could the operation take? Two hours? Four? It had been nearly five hours and still he had no idea as to her condition. All of his wealth couldn't buy him peace of mind or assure him that his daughter would ever be the same as she had been before the accident that had nearly taken her life six months ago. Holly had recovered, though slowly, and this last operation, a delicate one, was designed to repair her damaged uterus. Her life was no longer in jeopardy, but the center of her womanhood was.

Kyle considered calling the hospital again, but pushed the thought out of his mind. It had been less than an hour since his last call, when he had been politely but firmly told that Miss Sterling was still in surgery. Wasn't a father allowed any rights? Or had he given them up ten years ago when he and Rose were divorced?

The twinge of doubt he felt when he thought about Holly and the agony she had suffered at her mother's hand forced him to turn away from the window. He crossed the room, grabbed the opened bottle of bourbon and, despite his earlier abstention, splashed another drink into his glass. It was gone in one swallow.

Once again he tried to blame Rose for his daughter's hatred of him, but a nagging thought that he was partially at fault refused to leave. Even the pain that Holly was enduring, wasn't it in some indirect manner his fault? Though two parents were divorced, didn't a father have some responsibility to protect his child?

His thin patience snapped and he found that he couldn't wait another minute in the den. The appointment with Ryan Woods was still a couple of hours away and the damn phone refused to ring. Kyle felt as if the brushed plaster walls were closing in on him. He could feel a muscle working the corner of his jaw as he stalked down the tiled corridor toward the far end of the rambling hacienda.

His voice interrupted the stillness as he approached the kitchen. "Lydia?"

The elderly Mexican woman he employed was hard of hearing and didn't respond to his initial greeting. He entered the immense room filled with hanging brass pots and trailing vines. Lydia was working industriously on the countertop. The soft Mexican ballad she was humming was familiar to him; he remembered it from his childhood. She was kneading dough for home-baked bread. It was the same routine Kyle had witnessed for many of his thirty-seven years. "Lydia?"

The plump woman turned around to face him as she wiped the flour from her hands on her worn apron. A slow, warm smile spread over her round features. "I thought you were in the den."

He returned her grin with an uneasy imitation. "I was, but I couldn't stand it any longer." She nodded as if she understood him perfectly. "I'm going out for a while."

"But you haven't heard from the hospital?"

The corners of Kyle's mouth turned downward. "No."

"Are you going there?"

Kyle hesitated, but shook his head. "I don't think so. Ryan Woods will be here shortly."

The older woman didn't budge. "But certainly you can change your plans. Mr. Woods will understand; he has a family of his own. What is business when you have a daughter in the hospital?"

"Rose is there," Kyle responded, hoping to satisfy the kindly old woman.

Lydia's dark eyes snapped. "Humph!" She repinned her graying hair before making a quick sign of the cross over her ample bosom. "That woman is no mother," she muttered under her breath. "You should be with Miss Holly!"

"Apparently the divorce courts didn't think so, nor does Dr. Seivers."

Lydia turned her attention back to the dough and attacked it with a vengeance. "What does he know about families?" She continued to talk to herself in Spanish, and Kyle suspected that Rose was getting the verbal abuse she deserved.

"Holly doesn't want to see me."

"That woman, that Rose, she poisoned Miss Holly's mind against you!" Lydia waved her hands frantically in the air, dusting the room with white flour. "Miss Holly, she's too young to know what to think!" This time the stream of Spanish was too rapid for Kyle to understand at all.

The telephone shrilled and Lydia's voice quieted as Kyle reached for the receiver. Lydia watched his movements with worried brown eyes. She had cared for Holly as an infant and loved her still. Rose had never approved of Lydia, even though the Mexican woman had helped raise Kyle. Though Lydia had suffered the insult of being pushed aside once the divorce was final, she had never stopped caring for Kyle Sterling's only child.

Kyle's greeting was an impatient hello.

"Mr. Sterling? This is Dr. Seivers." The voice on the other end of the line sounded weary.

"How is my daughter?"

"She's fine. Came through the operation like a trouper. She's down in Recovery now."

Despite the optimistic words, Kyle detected a hint of hesitancy. "Then you were able to correct the problem?"

There was a slight pause. "That remains to be seen. I'll have to be honest with you, Mr. Sterling. Right now I'd give Holly a fifty-fifty chance of a full recovery.… You have to understand that her uterus was badly scarred from the accident. Though her fallopian tubes weren't damaged, the uterine wall was ruptured. It will take time to determine the success of the surgery."

"What happens if the operation doesn't work?"

"There is no reason to borrow trouble, Mr. Sterling."

"It's a simple question, Doctor."

There was an audible sigh as Dr. Seivers decided how much he could tell Holly's father. "We'll have to see," he replied evasively. "But if she doesn't heal properly and continues to hemorrhage, I'll probably advise additional surgery."

Kyle's hand clenched around the receiver until his knuckles whitened. "What kind of surgery?"

Dr. Seiver's response was patient but grim. "I would most likely recommend a hysterectomy."

The weight of the doctor's words settled on Kyle's shoulders like lead. His tone was emotionless, but his face was stern. "Dr. Seivers, my daughter is only fifteen."

"And lucky to be alive. Six months ago, she was fighting for her life. Today she's nearly recovered."