Storybook Dad (Harlequin American Romance)

Real Life Is Not A Fairy Tale…Right?

When Mark Reynolds first meets Emily Todd, he’s smitten. So
is Seth, his son—which is why Mark has to nip this attraction in the bud.
Emily’s been honest about her diagnosis, and Mark can’t put Seth through the
heartbreak of another illness. Even though Emily is fit, sexy and
oh-so-alive.

Mark’s as close as any man’s come to being the prince Emily
imagined when she was a girl, right down to the gorgeous, ocean-blue eyes. But
that girl never imagined herself with MS. Emily doesn’t want to be anyone’s
burden, and she doesn’t want to hurt Mark’s vulnerable son. So she’ll harden her
heart, stick to her work and forget about the magic of Mark’s touch.

Can two grown-ups with their minds made up learn a lesson in
love from a four-year-old boy?

Mark’s dilemma was as strong as ever

There was something about Emily’s spark, her spirit, that
made him feel more alive than he had in months. But he couldn’t ignore the other
part, either—the part that wanted to protect his son’s heart by keeping her at
arm’s length.

“Don’t get close, don’t get hurt,” he mumbled under his
breath.

It was a good motto. One that would keep him from ever seeing
the kind of heart-wrenching hurt he’d been unable to erase from Seth’s eyes
during Sally’s illness.

Emily.

Once again, the woman who’d captivated his son over a sand
castle and a pepperoni pizza flashed before his eyes.

Emily was struggling on the first rung of a ladder he knew
all too well. He saw it in her face when he talked to her about the foundation.
He heard it in her voice when she brushed off his concern about the pain in her
leg. And he sensed it in the unbendable determination that made her refuse help
for even the simplest of things.

She needed a hand.

Dear Reader,

I’ve written my fair share of books over the past several
years, but none have impacted me in quite the way this one has.

Like my heroine, Emily Todd, I, too, was diagnosed with
Multiple Sclerosis. And like Emily, I found myself doubting who I was and what
I’d be able to do with my life.

Fortunately for me, I have a lot of the same drive Emily has,
and I soon realized that those big scary words didn’t have to change much of
anything. And they haven’t. I still do everything I’ve always done and you’d be
hard-pressed to know there’s anything wrong with me.

While the rest of my story is very different than Emily’s,
both of us experienced the unconditional love of a child along our path to
acceptance. For Emily, that child is Mark’s son, Seth. For me, it was my
then-eight-year-old daughter, whose love and steadfast hand helped me turn a
necessary corner in the way I saw things.

Life certainly comes with its fair share of surprises,
doesn’t it? Thankfully, love has a way of making most of those surprises work
out just fine.

With warm hugs,
Laura Bradford

Storybook Dad

Laura Bradford

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Since the age of ten, Laura Bradford hasn’t wanted to do
anything other than write—news articles, feature stories, business copy and
whatever else she could come up with to pay the bills. But they were always
diversions from the one thing she wanted to write most—fiction.

Today, with an Agatha Award nomination under her belt and a
new mystery series with Berkley Prime Crime, Laura is thrilled to have crossed
into the romance genre with her all-time favorite series, Harlequin American
Romance.

When she’s not writing, Laura enjoys reading, hiking,
traveling and all things chocolate. She lives in New York with her two
daughters. To contact her, visit her website,
www.laurabradford.com
.

Books by Laura Bradford

HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE

1289—KAYLA’S DADDY
1315—A MOM FOR
CALLIE
1332—MIRACLE BABY

All backlist available in ebook. Don’t miss any of our
special offers. Write to us at the following address for information on our
newest releases.

Harlequin Reader Service
U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O.
Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269
Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A
5X3

For Jenny,

You were, without a doubt, Mommy’s biggest hero during a very
difficult time. You are an amazingly special little girl and I’m blessed to be
able to call you my daughter.

Chapter One

Emily Todd stared down at the sparkly silver castle and
the blue-eyed prince standing in front of its door, a familiar lump rising in
her throat. Oh, what she wouldn’t give to rewind time back to when planning
life’s path had been as easy as reaching for the next crayon in a brand-new
sixty-four-count pack.

Back then, with the help of Giddy-Up Brown, she’d been able to
ride the perfect horse through a canopy of Burnt Autumn leaves. A mixture of
River Brown and Nautical Gray had captured the hue of an angry river with the
indisputable eye of a future rafter, while Foliage Green had breathed life into
the woods she’d navigated with a slightly oversized compass. And Rocky Ledge?
The curious mixture of brown, blue and gray? That had made the mountain she’d
squeezed onto its own piece of eighteen-by-twenty-four-inch manila paper seem
both majestic and ominous at the same time.

It was hard not to look at the framed pictures on the wall
behind her desk and not be impressed by the colors her pint-sized self had
selected when mapping out her life in crayon. Though why she hadn’t grown bored
with the whole notion of drawing her dreams after the fourth picture was
anyone’s guess—even if Milk Chocolate Brown hair and Ocean Wave Blue eyes were
still her ideal for the prince who’d never materialized.

Shaking her head, Emily slipped the decades-old castle drawing
back into the folder and pushed it across the desk at her best friend. “Look, I
know what you’re trying to do here, Kate, but this doesn’t mean anything to me
anymore. It’s a drawing. A silly, stupid drawing. I mean, really, what guy
carries a woman across a threshold these days unless she’s an invalid and can’t
make it through the door herself?”

She considered her own words, compared them to the nightmare
that had driven her out of bed before dawn, the same one that had robbed her of
sleep many times over the past few weeks. “Hmm. Now that I think about it, I
should have spent my Saturday afternoons running a fortune-telling operation
instead of all those lemonade stands we used to have as kids, huh? I think I
actually had a visionary gift.”

Ignoring the blatant sarcasm in Emily’s voice, Kate Jennings
pointed at the series of framed pictures behind Emily’s head. “You framed
those
drawings, didn’t you? So what’s the
difference?”

She glanced over her shoulder, mentally comparing herself to
the girl in each of the four drawings. Her hair, while still the same natural
blond it had always been, was now fashioned in a pixie cut in lieu of the long
locks she’d preferred as a child. Her big brown eyes hadn’t changed at all,
really, only they didn’t sparkle quite as much. And the faint smattering of
freckles noticeably absent in the drawings was right where it had always been,
sprinkled across the bridge of her nose like fairy dust. “I can think of one
huge difference, Kate. The dreams depicted in the frames? Those actually came
true. That one—” she pointed at the folder “—didn’t.”

Kate pushed the folder back toward Emily. “So what? You drew
them all at the same time.”

She felt the tension building in her shoulders and worked to
keep it from her voice. “Do you think a doctor would frame a term paper she’d
failed, and hang it in her office beside her medical school diploma? Do you
think an architect would want to showcase her first ever set of plans—the ones
where she forgot to add the foundation that would have actually kept the
structure
standing?
” At Kate’s scowl, Emily
continued. “I think it’s cool that you found these pictures after all this time,
Kate, I really do. It’s why I framed the four I did. But you can’t expect me to
be too eager to glorify an unrealized dream alongside ones that actually came
true, can you?”

Without waiting for a response, Emily pushed back her desk
chair and stood. “I’ve got to get back to work. I have an orienteering class
starting in five minutes.” She strode across the office, stopping at the door.
“But I’ll see you and Doug on Friday night at the barbecue, right?”

“Definitely.” Kate grabbed the folder and her purse and met
Emily at the door. “It’s not supposed to be too hot that day, so you should
be—”

“I’ll be fine no matter what the temperature is,” she snapped.
Then, realizing how she sounded, she softened her tone. “This diagnosis is not
going to beat me, Kate. You of all people should know that. I’ve done everything
I said I was going to do and then some.”

“If that were true, this picture—” Kate waved the folder in the
air “—would be in a frame like all the others.”

“Would you give it a rest, please? I’m not going to hang my
failures on the wall. Seems kind of morbid to me.”

“I get that,” Kate said, tucking the folder under her arm. “But
the horseback riding, the kayaking—all of it—came true because you set your mind
to it and you made it happen. I mean, c’mon, Emily, how many people do we know
from our childhood who have started their own company? How many people do we
know that have taken said company and made it the talk of, not only this town,
but every other town in a hundred-mile radius? None that I can think of. And why
is that? Because you made up your mind about what you wanted in life a very long
time ago. So why should finding Mr. Wonderful be any different now?”

“Because
I’m
different now,” she
whispered.

Kate reached out and brushed a wisp of hair from her friend’s
face. “Did you ever consider the possibility that all this other stuff came true
first because you were
able
to do it at that
time?”

Emily closed her eyes, the familiar pull of fear that had
accompanied the doctor’s diagnosis threatening to envelop her all over
again.

No. She refused to go there again. Not now, anyway. Not when
she had a class to teach.

Opening her eyes, she gave Kate a hug and then shoved her
through the door, her voice settling somewhere between frustration and
determination. “I was and
am
able to do it, Kate.
Nothing is going to change that. You just wait and see.”

“But if you’d just slow down long enough to meet someone, you
might—”

“Please. I’ve got to go. I’ll see you Friday evening.”

Without waiting for a response, Emily made her way toward the
classroom at the end of the hall. Her friend was wrong. Scenes in the pictures
on the wall had come true because they were up to
Emily
. The Prince Charming picture she’d sent back home with Kate
was nothing but a childhood fantasy born at a time when she’d been blissfully
naive about words like
disability
and
burden
.

She was wiser now.

Squaring her shoulders, she yanked open the door and walked
into the room to find five pairs of eyes greeting her arrival with the same
determination that had driven her throughout her life. It was a determination
she admired and understood. “Welcome to Bucket List 101. My name is Emily Todd,
and I’m here to help you realize your dream of learning how to orienteer your
way through the woods with nothing more than a compass and some coordinates. As
you probably know from the course description that lured you here, we’ll spend
our first hour in the classroom learning about the compass and how to use it,
along with our maps. Then we’ll head out into the woods for some fun.”

The left side of the conference table held a trio of retired
men who were hanging on every word she spoke. To the right sat the
mother-daughter team who’d called the day before looking for some memorable
bonding time. “It looks like we’ve got a good group here,” Emily said.

“I hope my presence won’t change that.”

Spinning around, Emily took in the sight of the man standing in
the doorway, registration papers in hand, and froze, her heart thudding in her
chest.

“My name’s Mark Reynolds. Your assistant at the front desk said
I could still get in your class if I hurried.”

She knew she should say something. But for a moment she was at
a complete loss for words.

Mark Reynolds was like no man she’d ever laid eyes on—at least
not outside the confines of her imagination. Even then, the flesh-and-blood
version was much taller than she’d always envisioned. Either way though, his
hair was the epitome of Milk Chocolate Brown and his eyes a perfect match for
Ocean Wave Blue....

But it was his arms—the kind capable of sweeping a woman off
her feet and carrying her across the threshold of a make-believe castle—that
yanked Emily back to a reality that no longer had room for such silly
dreams.

Mark looked down at his registration papers and then back at
Emily. “So…am I too late?”

Slowly she expelled the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been
holding. “It’s never too late, Mr. Reynolds. Not for
learning,
anyway.”

* * *

H
E
HUNG
BACK
as they neared the parking lot, his thoughts as much on Emily Todd as anything
he’d learned that morning. During the first hour of class, before they’d
ventured outside, they’d sat around a table, and Emily had taught them how to
use a compass to find a set of coordinates. He’d tried to listen politely to the
questions his classmates asked, and had worked hard to focus on the answers, but
in the end, all he knew for sure was the fact that his teacher was gorgeous.

Emily Todd was straight out of the pages of one of his son’s
favorite fairy tales, right down to the wispy blond hair, slightly upturned nose
and big brown doe eyes. But unlike those winged characters that flew around in
the dark, sprinkling pixie dust in the air, this woman’s feet were firmly on the
ground, and she carried herself with a confidence that was anything but
childlike.

He admired the determination that had driven her to start a
company like Bucket List 101. It took guts and—judging by the list of outdoor
activities the company offered—she had to be in great physical shape. Her toned
legs and taut body attested to that.

“Did you enjoy yourself, Mr. Reynolds?”

Mark shifted his attention from Emily to her teenage assistant.
“I had a great time, Trish. Spending the last two hours in the woods was really
cool.”

“It’s one of my favorite classes, too.” Trish swept her
clipboard toward Emily, who was disappearing into the woods with a drawstring
bag. “Every time I think Emily has come up with the coolest class ever, she
trumps it with another one the next time around. Come January, she’ll be
offering this same class, but on skis.”

“Skis?”

“Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?” Without waiting for his answer,
Trish headed across the parking lot, glancing back over her shoulder in his
direction. “If you’re interested, I’ll be in the office tomorrow morning. We can
get you signed up before the fall and winter program guide even goes out in the
mail.”

“Thanks, Trish. Sounds like fun.” And it did.

Especially since it meant spending more time with Emily
Todd…

“Don’t you think you should give that back to Emily before you
get in your car and drive home?”

Mark pulled his gaze from Emily’s receding back and fixed it
instead on one of the retired guys, who’d kept the class in stitches with his
nonstop jokes throughout the three-hour course. “Huh?”

The man pointed at Mark’s left hand. “You still have your
compass. You were supposed to set it on the porch railing when we came out of
the woods.”

“Whoops. You’re right. I’d guess I better catch up with Trish
and turn this in before Emily thinks I made off with her equipment.”

“If I were you, young man, I’d bypass Trish and take it
straight to Emily. Gives you an excuse to look at her for another few
minutes.”

Raking his hand through his hair, Mark released an audible
breath. “No, man, it’s not like that. Really. I’ve got a kid at home and I’m not
in any place to be—”

“She’s a cute little thing. Spunky, too.” The man took a few
steps and then paused. “And she don’t have no wedding ring on her finger,
either.”

Mark looked down at the hand that gripped the compass, a
familiar lump building in his throat at the sight of the half-inch band of skin
that no longer stood out the way it once had when his ring was off. What on
earth was he doing? He’d taken this class as a release, not to pick up chicks.
It was way too soon. Seth needed his complete focus.
He
needed his complete focus....

Mark started back across the grass and along the path where
Emily had just disappeared. Step by step, he ventured farther into the woods,
and found the excitement he’d felt during the hands-on portion of the class
resurfacing in spades.

It was as if the sunlight that randomly poked through the heavy
leaves, warming him from the outside in, had somehow managed to rekindle a part
of his spirit that had disappeared along with any respect he’d once had for
himself prior to Sally’s death.

Mark climbed onto a stump and looked from side to side, his
heart rate picking up at the sight of Emily heading back toward him, the bag
she’d been carrying into the woods now looped over her shoulder, a pad of paper
and a pencil in her hand. “Emily? I saw you head back here. Everything
okay?”

She stopped midstep and gave him a funny look. “Just jotting
down a few new coordinates for next time. Did you forget something, Mr.
Reynolds?”

“No, I…” He glanced down, saw the compass he held in a death
grip. “Actually, yeah. I forgot to turn in my compass. By the time I realized
it, Trish had already collected them and I didn’t want to just leave it sitting
around.”

The smile he’d found so engaging all afternoon returned. “Kind
of got used to holding it, huh? Well, don’t worry about it. I’ve found myself
driving home with a compass still in my hand after one of these kinds of
outings, so you’re in good company. Means it started to feel natural.”

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