Daring Dylan

Chapter One

On a back road in Maine, Gracie O’Donnell’s spirits sank into her shoes as her twelve-year-old Dodge lost speed. An impatient muscle-bound SUV roared up behind her, honked and sped around, as she attempted to maneuver to the side of the road. Before her car ground to a complete halt, the odometer hit 199,897 miles. She shut off the engine and restarted it; the Dynasty refused to move another inch.

“What?” she muttered to the pile of metal and chrome. “You can’t make it three more miles to Liberty House?”

With a quick call from the hospital she worked at in Hartford, she’d notified her grandmother about the breech delivery that had delayed her departure. But with rush hour traffic, and now car trouble, even her revised time of arrival to her grandparents’ bed and breakfast had come and gone.

Just her luck. It was dark and late, and her cell phone was out of juice, not that it would do any good on these back roads anyway. No doubt about it, she was stranded. She should have guessed that after one of the most excruciating weeks of her life, if something else could go wrong, it would.

It could be worse, she told herself, striving to resurrect her usual optimism. It wasn’t far to Gran’s, and she could walk if she had to, dark or not. But first, she’d check under the hood. “

You stay here,” she told her Scottish terrier, MacDuff, as she retrieved a flashlight from the glove box. “I don’t want you tearing off after some critter while I look at the engine.”

MacDuff cocked his head reproachfully.

“Don’t look at me like that.” She scratched the magic spot under his chin that turned him into a mop of puppy adoration. “Remember how long it took to get the burrs out of your coat when you chased that woodchuck last fall?”

As Gracie stepped out of the car, the spring air assaulted her with the familiar aromas of spruce and pine, laced with a hint of salt and seaweed.

She inhaled deeply and her spirits lifted a bit just from breathing in the scents of home. She checked the dipstick and jiggled a couple of wires before a big fat raindrop plopped onto the crown of her head. A second one landed on her shoulder, and then buckets of water plastered her T-shirt to her back like a frigid sheet of shrink-wrap. With a perturbed squeak, she dashed through the deluge into the car.

Oh, great, now what?

Walking or waiting seemed like her only options. If she waited, it could be hours before the rain stopped, and morning before anyone passed by. This road didn’t lead anywhere except to her grandparents’ bed and breakfast and the abandoned Bradford place a couple of miles further down. Her grandfather was in the hospital, her grandmother’s eyesight made driving at night inadvisable, and their B&B wouldn’t be open until the end of the week.

Okay, she’d walk, she decided, shivering inside her wet shirt. It couldn’t be helped, even though MacDuff, the Doggie Prince, hated to get his paws wet. She groped under the front seat to retrieve her umbrella just as lights approached from the road ahead. A spark of hope flared. Maybe Gran had sent someone out to search for her. Her stepfather, perhaps, or Clayton.

But, no. The hulking outline of the sport vehicle heading her way looked like the same upscale SUV that had passed her earlier. It was too new, too expensive, and entirely too spiffy to belong to anyone from East Langden.

But if this was her only chance to catch a ride this evening, she wasn’t going to let it get away. Gracie hurried to put on her jacket, zip it, and stick MacDuff inside.

Stuffing her keys into her pocket, she hopped out of her car, hoisted the umbrella, and then planted herself at the side of the road. She used her flashlight to blink a signal, so she wouldn’t be mistaken for a moose. When the quasi-truck skidded to a stop, she moved around to speak to the driver.

The window lowered six inches with smooth automation. Even with the rain-distorted view and indirect light, it only took a moment for Gracie to recognize the striking face that had repeatedly made the news in the weeks since his mother’s death.

A thatch of thick, dark blond hair fell from a high forehead above slashing eyebrows that accentuated deep-set eyes. One cocky brow hooked upward.

“Trouble?” he asked, his nose and mouth obscured behind the tinted window.

“Yep,” Gracie said, doing all she could to maintain a friendly smile while staring in the face of Bradford condescension. “Do you have a cell phone?”

“It isn’t working.” He held up the palm-sized gadget and shook it–right, like that would help. “It’s supposed to work anywhere in the world, but here in East Bufu, there’s no signal.”

If she had been in Hartford, or if the motorist had been a complete unknown, Gracie would have asked him to drive on and call Triple A or the local police at the first opportunity. But this wasn’t an unknown motorist and she could guess what had brought him to the area.

For Clayton’s sake, she figured she shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to pump a Bradford for information if at all possible—plus, she really did need him to give her a lift.

“Are you lost?” she asked. “

Why would you think that?” His precise prep school diction set her teeth on edge, reminding her of her faithless ex-fiancé, Baxter, and his insufferable ego.

“Well, it’s a good guess that if Dylan Bradford is wandering around on this road for the first time in decades, he’s bound to be looking for something.”

He narrowed his eyes to suspicious slits. “How do you know who I am?”

At the sharp tone, MacDuff poked his nose out of the top of her jacket and growled. “Hush,” she said, giving him an affectionate pat before responding to Dylan. “East Langden may not have been blessed with the presence of a bona fide Bradford in over twenty years, but if one of you belches, it still makes the local news.”

“Hmmph,” he muttered, just this side of a snort.

“What’s wrong with your car?”

“I think it’s the transmission. Want to take a look?”
How many jet-set playboys does it take to check a dipstick? There was bound to be a good punch line in there somewhere.

His laser-sharp gaze moved from her damp curls to the hairy lump of MacDuff inside her jacket, then passed over the threadbare knees of her jeans, and on down to her muddy sneakers.

Instinctively, she knew this was not the scrutiny of a man sizing up an attractive woman. This was the kind of assessment a cop would make when visually frisking a suspect for weapons. In Dylan Bradford’s case, the search was more likely for a hidden microphone or camera. Hadn’t she seen proof of the press hounding his footsteps in every newspaper and magazine she subscribed to?

Understanding didn’t keep her from squirming under the intensity of the perusal. She tilted her umbrella back a few inches to allow him a clear view of her face. The gesture sent rain dripping off the umbrella and down her neck. She shimmied her shoulders to halt the icy trickle dribbling down her spine.

“Don’t you have GPS?”

“Yeah, but the road I’m looking for isn’t marked.”
She did her best to hide a smirk. “Well, then, if you’ll give me a lift to my grandparents’, I can make sure you get to your cabin.” A flash of lightning and boom of thunder accentuated the offer. The escalating storm prompted her to add, “It’s not out of your way.”

Maybe he recognized her for the honest person she was. Maybe he took pity on her predicament, or maybe he was blessed with a better disposition than she would have guessed. For whatever reason, just as she began to think he’d leave her to her fate, he shrugged.

“All right, hop in.”

“I thought you’d never ask.”She grinned to counter the sarcasm, then splashed her way around the car without giving him time to rethink his offer.

In her rush to get out of the rain, her umbrella caught on the door. The time it took her to wrestle the contraption closed allowed the cold and damp to invade the interior of the car like an invisible wet blanket. Finally, she managed to settle into the seat with even less grace than usual.

The leathery scent of the new car and the aroma of expensive cologne reminded Gracie of Baxter again, and made her feel less ashamed than she should about tracking mud all over the spanking clean floor mats.

“Which way?” Dylan asked as she strapped herself in.

She gave him directions, and he put the car in gear and took off. “Why didn’t you use your OnStar system,” she asked, nodding to the dash.

“It wasn’t working either. It kept telling me to turn at Cleveland, and unless I’m way off the mark, we’re nowhere near Cleveland.”

Gracie suppressed a smile, and MacDuff chose that moment to wriggle his head free and lick Gracie’s chin.

“Who’s your friend?” Dylan put out his hand for the Scottie to sniff.

“This is MacDuff, the main reason I didn’t want to walk. I would’ve started out carrying him, but after a while, he would have squirmed to get down. And soggy dog is not my favorite bedtime companion.”

“He sleeps with you?”

“Every chance he gets.”

He responded with an understanding chuckle, creating a connection between them, a pleasant moment that she resented and wouldn’t have believed was possible until it happened.

“Smart dog,” he said, surprising her.

She jerked her head up to glare at him, but he waved his hand and shrugged. She guessed that kind of innuendo was second nature to him. He couldn’t keep himself from flirting with any available female anymore than MacDuff could stop himself from chasing after woodchucks.

They traveled in silence while Gracie ignored the fact that his comment produced some definite heat somewhere around her mid-section, even though she still shivered inside her damp clothes. She tried to think of a way to advance her fact-finding mission for Clayton instead. Unfortunately for Clayton’s cause, she was hopelessly straightforward. Nothing devious or clever came to mind.

“I was sorry to hear about your mother,” she ventured, and just that fast, any warmth they shared evaporated.

“Did you know her?” he asked, the chill in his voice frosting the air between them.

“No, but she visited the women’s health clinic I work at in Hartford several times. We all admired her commitment to AIDS awareness and responsible sex education.”


The curtness of the single word cut her off before she mentioned her own mother’s death nine years ago. It must be difficult for him to talk about. Even after all this time, the sense of loss she’d felt remained clear in her memory, so his abruptness didn’t offend her.

If anything, she was grateful for it.

Sharing grief about their mothers might have led to further revelations. They had both lost their fathers at an early age to tragic accidents, too, but what was the point of mentioning it?

It didn’t matter how many similarities they shared, they really had nothing in common. She was blue collar, beer, and nachos; he was blue blood, champagne, and sashimi.

Just like Baxter.

Except better looking, of course.

Annoyed by her awareness of his casual just-rolled-out-of-bed-and-didn’t-put-forth-any-
effort scrumptious good looks–although God knew she’d have to be blind not to notice them–she figured it was time to abandon polite conversation in favor of her more direct style. She turned in her seat and peered at his strong profile in the dim light of the dash. “So, why are you here?”
His fingers tightened on the steering wheel, but then he relaxed his hands and gave her a full dose of the famous Bradford smile. Tempted to smile back, she reminded herself that she’d seen that same smile many times before, and on whose face she’d seen it–Dylan’s unacknowledged half-brother and

Gracie’s sort-of-step-brother-slash-best-friend, Clayton Harris.

“My mother left the Bradford cabin to me,” he said. “I want to look the property over before I decide what to do with it.”

Simple explanation, feasible enough, but she didn’t believe evaluating this insignificant portion of his inheritance was the only reason behind his visit to the neighborhood.

If she’d inherited property in the south of France, St. Bart’s, and East Langden, as the papers reported Dylan had, which one would she visit first? All right, unfair question. East Langden was her favorite place on earth, but she doubted that it held the same appeal to Dylan.

She wondered if he knew that area teens used the secluded cabin as party central. “It’s in pretty bad shape.”

“How do you know?”“

It’s not far from my grandparents’ and sometimes I walk that way to pick blueberries.” She winced as she said it. The admission made her sound about as sophisticated as Little Red Riding Hood. Considering Dylan’s much-reported lady-killer reputation, she could easily imagine him assuming the role of Big Bad Wolf.

He turned his head to flash her a curious look. “Did you grow up around here?”

“Yes,” she said, annoyed to realize he’d taken control of the questioning when she’d intended to be the interrogator.

He paused before asking, “Do you know a guy named Clayton Harris?”

“Doctor Harris?” she asked, stressing Clay’s title. “Sure, I know him.”

“What’s he like?”

“Nice guy, good friend.” She couldn’t possibly sum up what Clay meant to her in a few words, and the short description contained mere hints of the true picture. Thinking of his struggle to find out who he was and where he belonged, she couldn’t resist the temptation to shake Dylan Bradford’s rock-solid self-assurance. “He looks a lot like you actually. Any relation?”

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