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He had her in his arms again in a second flat. Sliding his hands into her hair, he kissed her and kissed her, needing the reassurance of knowing that this was happening, that he really was this lucky. Soon kissing was not enough, however, and his hands began to roam, smoothing up her rib cage and onto her breasts, sliding over her butt and between her legs. She murmured and moaned and he felt the damp heat growing between her thighs, even through the fabric of her leggings.

Gaining access to all the areas he needed to touch and taste proved to be a time-consuming task. Her sports bra had about a million clasps and catches, and he had to slide it over her head before he could get his hands and mouth on her breasts. Then she had to toe off her shoes and roll down her leggings before they could get any more intimate.

"Ten points on the blanket, negative five for the sports gear," he growled against her stomach as he nibbled his way down her body.

She just gasped and threaded her fingers through his hair and wrapped her legs around his back.

He wanted to go slow, to make this moment last forever, to ride the realization that he was going to wake up with this woman, hold this woman in his arms, love this woman for the rest of his life. But primitive instinct demanded more. He wanted to take her, claim her, bury himself inside her.

Shucking his running shorts with efficient haste, he centered himself in the cradle of her thighs, the head of his erection probing the moist plumpness of her inner lips.

"Condom," he said instinctively.

She just smiled up at him and lifted her hips. He grinned back at her, then closed his eyes as he slid into the exquisite, wet, tight heat of her.

"I love you," he said as he began to move. "I love you."

"Yes," she breathed.

He figured he had about sixty seconds left in him, between her writhing body, the slick pressure between her thighs, and the four weeks of pent-up need rising inside him. Pumping into her furiously, he sucked a nipple into his mouth and tongued it firmly, savoring her taste and the animal cry she made. He felt her body flex like a bow, and then she threw her head back and he felt her body tighten and release around his.

"I love you," he said between clenched teeth as his own passion rose up to take him. She stared into his eyes, and she pressed her palm against his cheek as he spun off into pleasure, his body shuddering into hers powerfully.

They lay in the dappled sunlight not speaking for a long time afterward, hands soothing each other's bodies, lips meeting for frequent, lingering kisses full of unspoken tenderness and promises.

"I knew the moment I met you that you were trouble," he finally said, pressing a kiss into the nape of her neck.

"Oh yeah? I thought you were trouble, too-my kind of trouble," she said.

When he looked into her eyes, he saw so much love and vulnerability and hope there that it nearly slew him.

"Definitely. The kind of trouble I could handle a lifetime of," he said.

"Deal," she said. She offered him her hand, her mouth quirked into a lopsided smile.

"I think we can do better than that," he said.

And he proceeded to show her how much better.


TAKING a deep breath, Claudia stared at the rustic door in front of her. She felt rather than saw Sadie and Grace join her on the stoop, and knowing they were there for her gave her the courage to knock.

The Safe Ground Residential Treatment Center was situated in Monte Nido in the Hidden Hills area of Calabasas, and the house before them was a rambling mountain home, the sort of house that had been added on to a dozen times over the years. Claudia knew that it accommodated forty patients, all of them alcohol or drug addicts. Her brothers had described the rooms inside to her-the big hall with a Ping-Pong table, old couches and shelves of books, the industrial-sized kitchen staffed by the residents, the rambling backyard full of outdoor seating for visitation day. They hadn't seen the dorms where their mother was sleeping, since those areas of the house were for residents only, but Claudia felt she had a good idea of what to expect from the center itself.

It was her mother she was unsure about.

The door opened, and a slight middle-aged woman gave them an inquisitive smile.

"I'm Claudia Dostis. I'm here to see Talia Dostis," Claudia said.

"You're on our list. Please come in," she said.

It took a few moments for them all to sign in and be taken through the rules. Finally, the woman led them through a series of cool, dim rooms until they reached a door to an outside porch. Stretching out behind the house was a broad expanse of lawn, already littered with other family groupings on visitation.

"Talia, someone to see you," the woman called.

Behind her, Sadie and Grace placed a hand each on her shoulders, silently reassuring her that they were there for her. Leandro had wanted to come, but Claudia didn't want him to meet her mother like this. For the first time in years, she'd allowed herself to believe that her mother might stand a chance at beating her demons, and she wanted Leandro to meet the woman Talia Dostis could have been, should have been.

And, somehow, it felt fitting that Sadie and Grace should be here with her. They'd been through so much together over the years. They were her conscience, her courage, her compassion.

A woman was walking toward them, her steps slow but determined. Claudia stared at the healthy glow of Talia's makeupless skin, noted the clarity of her dark brown eyes, and the fact that her mother no longer had bones poking angles in her skin.

"Claudia," she said.

It had been so long, Claudia didn't know whether to embrace her or not. Her mother seemed equally uncertain. They settled for touching each other's arms, the contact fleeting but genuine.

"I've saved us a table," Talia said.

"We'll wait here," Sadie said quietly as Claudia began to follow her mother.

"You're very welcome to join us," Talia said warmly.

Sadie and Grace just smiled and shook their heads, waving them off. Claudia followed her mother to a rustic picnic bench and chairs in the shade of an old oak tree.

They sat opposite each other and simply stared at each other in silence for a long time, each cataloguing the other's precious features.

"You look well, Mama," Claudia said.

"I feel well, but there's a long way to go," Talia said. "Thank you so much for coming, Claudia. I know how hard I've made it for you to believe in me."

Claudia shrugged uncomfortably. Her mother had been in treatment for nearly eight weeks now. She'd told herself she wasn't going to buy into the fantasy of her mother's recovery, but having Leandro in her life had made her brave. If her mother slipped again...Claudia would deal with it.

"I want to believe," she said now.

Talia nodded, blinking away sudden tears.

"I wanted you to come because I wanted to tell you something. You were right to do what you did, to pull away from me. I know I didn't respond at the time, but I thought about what you'd said, about what you'd done every single day. I wondered how you were, I asked your brothers all the time, I watched your show. When I saw you accepting that award on television, I was so proud of you. But I knew I had no right to be. What have I ever contributed to your success, after all? You have thrived despite me."

"That's not true. There were many, many good times," Claudia said.

Talia reached across the table, and Claudia met her halfway. Their hands met, their fingers meshing tightly.

"My children are my greatest achievement, and I failed you terribly. But I'm not going to let the past defeat me anymore. I want you to know that. And I want to thank you for having the courage to do what you did. Without you, my brave girl, I wouldn't be here today."

Afterward, she wasn't sure who stood first, her or her mother. It didn't matter; within seconds they were in each other's arms.

They talked some more, Talia explaining the ins-and-outs of rehab life, the rules, the problems, the triumphs. Sadie and Grace came to join them, and all too soon their two hours were up.

Claudia was silent on the drive home, simply listening to Sadie and Grace talking softly about work, Sadie's baby, the renovation plans Mac and Grace had in mind.

Leandro exited the house as they pulled up, and she stepped into his arms and pressed her head against his big, broad chest.

She was home. And she had a family of her own at last-a fresh start, a chance to do things right.

Leandro tilted her chin up and kissed her, and she felt the old passion roar to life. This man...this man had saved her from herself.

"Thank you," she whispered to him.

Then she followed him inside to begin the rest of their lives.

ISBN: 978-1-4268-0105-1.


Copyright 2007 by Small Cow Productions PTY Ltd.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

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