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Authors: Loree Lough

Suddenly Married

From the moment they were born,

Noah’s two children had given his life new meaning. Once they were born, it took little more than a toothless smile to brighten his world. And now they were loving little beings who deserved to be loved right back.

By a woman’s gentle hands.

He’d try to persuade Dara Mackenzie to marry him.

Dara was the woman God intended him to spend the rest of his days with; his prayers had convinced him, and Noah knew it like he knew the earth would continue spinning.

So somehow he had to convince
her
of that.

For his children’s sake.

And…for his own?

Books by Loree Lough

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Suddenly Daddy
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Suddenly Married
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* Suddenly!

LOREE LOUGH

A full-time writer for more than twelve years, Loree Lough has produced more than two thousand published articles, dozens of short stories—appearing in magazines here and abroad—and novels for children ages eight to twelve. The author of twenty inspirational romances (including the award-winning
Pocketful of Love
and
Emma’s Orphans,
and bestsellers like
Reluctant Valentine
and
Miracle on Kismet Hill
—all from Barbour Books), she also writes as Cara McCormack and Aleesha Carter. A comedic conference speaker, Loree loves sharing in classroom settings what she’s learned the hard way. And since her daughters, Elice and Valerie, have moved into homes of their own, Loree and husband Larry have been trying to figure out why some folks think the “empty-nest syndrome” is a “bad” thing.…

Suddenly Married

Loree Lough

Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.


Psalms
37:7

To Elice and Valerie, my beloved daughters… and lifelong friends.

Prologue

“T
his is ridiculous,” she seethed, slamming the report onto the desk. “I refuse to believe my father could have done such a thing.”

Dara stood so abruptly her chair toppled over behind her. Noah Lucas gave the fallen chair a cursory glance before turning his dark-blue gaze to her. “I’m afraid it’s all right here in black and white.”

Dara uprighted the chair and ran a trembling hand through her hair.“Then…there must be some mistake, because—”

“I’ve been over these files three times. Numbers don’t lie.”

Spoken like a true accountant, she reflected.

Ironically, Dara had been drumming that very lesson into her geometry and algebra students’ heads since she began teaching at Centennial High eight years earlier. Frowning, she looked from the computer readout to the corporation’s checkbook to the year’s worth of her father’s bank statements. Money—great sums of it—had been moved from the company coffers into Jake Mackenzie’s
personal account. Hands clasped beneath her chin, Dara paced beside the desk. “Who could have done such a thing?” she wondered aloud. “And why?”

He heaved an exasperated sigh. “I have no idea why the man would do anything so foolish. I mean, surely he realized that sooner or later, he’d be found out.” Shaking his head, he added, “How he managed to get away with it through last tax season is a myster—”

Her pacing came to an abrupt halt beside the desk. “I don’t like what you’re implying, Mr. Lucas.”

He got to his feet, planted both powerful palms flat on her father’s desk. “I’m not implying anything,
Miss Mackenzie.
My accounting firm was hired by the board of directors to examine…” He smiled patronizingly. “For the sake of protocol, let’s just say we were called in to investigate certain, ah,
incongruities
in Pinnacle Construction’s books. Lucas and Associates has earned its reputation for being able to solve problems like this.”

“Problems like
what?
” Agitated, Dara pointed at the paperwork on the desk. “You call that evidence?” She rolled her eyes. “Innuendo and supposition—that’s all you’ve got there. And I—”

His long-lashed blue eyes narrowed to slits. “Innuendo and supposition?” The intended humor in Lucas’s resonant laugh never made it to his eyes. “More than two hundred thousand dollars disappeared in the past eighteen months.” He thumped the printout, then nodded at the bank statements. Sarcasm rang loud in his voice when he added, “And by some strange coincidence, that’s exactly how much was deposited in your father’s savings account.”

Dara opened her mouth to protest, to defend her father’ s good name. But Lucas held up a hand to forestall
any attempt at rationalization she might make. “I realize it’s not much consolation,” he said, “considering the ramifications, but I’m as surprised as you are. Jake Mackenzie’s reputation as an honest businessman earned him the respect of his contemporaries up and down the East Coast. Frankly, he’s the
last
person I would have suspected of stealing from his own partner.”

Gasping, Dara’s eyes widened. “How
dare
you call my father a…a…” She swallowed, unable to say the word.

“Thief?” Lucas finished. The blond eyebrow rose high on his forehead. “If you have a better explanation for how the funds got from here—” he nodded toward the big blue checkbook “—to there—” he indicated the savings statements “—I’m certainly willing to hear you out.”

No matter how bad things looked—and they looked gloomy indeed—Dara wouldn’t let herself believe her father had had anything to do with the missing money. Perhaps Jake’s secretary had deposited the money into his account by mistake. Or maybe that new comptroller hired a year or so ago wasn’t doing his job properly. It might have been the bank’s error.

The excuses amounted to a weak defense. Dara knew it. At best, those possibilities she’d listed might explain one or two erroneous withdrawals and deposits, but
dozens…?

The ugly truth is, there isn’t a good explanation for this mess. But there is an explanation! But she saw no sense in arguing the point, at least not here, not now. The truth will come out in the end, she assured herself, and my father will be cleared of these ludicrous accusations!
“So what happens next?” Dara asked, meeting Lucas’s icy stare with one of her own.

She hadn’t expected the look of sincere concern to furrow his handsome brow. Hadn’t expected the broad shoulders to slump as he dropped onto the leather seat of the ancient chair that had once belonged to her grandfather, founder of Pinnacle Construction.

Shaking his head, the accountant steepled both hands beneath his chin. “I expect that’s up to Kurt Turner.”

Kurt Turner! Dara fumed. But that old fool has been trying to get rid of Dad for years. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the one who deposited all that money into Dad’s account!

It dawned on her just then that all this funds juggling had begun about the time Kurt Turner started talking with Acmic Chemicals. The world-renowned agricultural firm had solicited a bid from Pinnacle Construction, and Turner was to have flown to England to discuss the project…a thirty-million-dollar, twenty-fiveacre industrial complex. At the last minute, family problems kept Turner from attending the meeting. The company’s shaky financial future—and the security of its 106 employees—rested on the outcome of this bid. So, despite the fact that he’d only recently been released from the hospital, Jake Mackenzie insisted on going to England in Turner’s stead.

“I’m beginning to smell a rat.”

Lucas sat forward, folded those big hands on the desktop. “
Now
we’re getting somewhere.”

“Excuse me?”

“I called you in here to solicit your help, Ms. Mackenzie. I was hoping we could put our heads together, figure out why your father took the money and—”

“He
didn’t
take it, I tell you!”

Lucas drove a hand through his hair, leaving fingerthick streaks in the blond waves. “Tell me something that gives me
reason
to believe that.”

Dara sighed and, pointing at the reams of paper on his desk, said, “What can I tell you that you don’t think you know?”

He tugged on one corner of his mustached mouth. “As I was starting to say earlier, I want to help you.”

She frowned. “
Why?

The blue eyes darkened like angry thunderclouds. “You’ll find I’m very thorough, Miss Mackenzie.” He scrubbed a hand over his face, then said in a gentler tone, “Something troubles me about this investigation.”

From the moment they’d said their cool and courteous hellos, Dara sensed Noah Lucas was like a bounty hunter, determined to bring in his man. The look of genuine concern, the slight tremor in his deep voice, forced her to reconsider her first impression of him.

“Well,” she began, “I’ve suspected for some time that Kurt Turner was out to get control of the company.”

“But I thought—”

“That because my father made him a partner, they were best friends.” She nodded grimly. “That’s what everyone thought. The truth was, Dad brought Mr. Turner into the business when it looked as though he might lose everything—his contracting firm, his house, his wife.” Her forefingers drew quotation marks in the air. “‘If we put our talents together,’ Dad said, ‘we can double our income.’” She sighed. “He often remarked that Kurt Turner had blueprint ink for blood, whereas Dad was a natural-born salesman.”

“Apparently, he was right.”

“For a while. But Dad had one major flaw. He paid little if any attention to things like bank statements and tax returns—which is how Pinnacle got into money trouble in the first place.”

“How long were they in, ah, ‘trouble’?”

“Dad never wanted me involved in the business. But from the little he said, I gathered they’d been having money problems for the past five years or so.”

“So the deal with Acmic Chemicals would have saved their bacon.”

“I’ll say! A thirty-million-dollar industrial complex on twenty-five acres would have put them right back on the map.”

“But…”

“But Mr. Turner had family problems, or so he said, and couldn’t go to England to seal the deal. Dad insisted on going, even though he’d just gotten out of the hospital.”

“Hospital? What was wrong with him?”

“Heart attack.” Dara hadn’t discussed it, not even once, since that day when her father had sat where Noah Lucas was sitting now. “I did my level best to talk him out of that trip, but he said he had to go, said he owed it to his employees to try to save Pinnacle.”

Lucas nodded.

“I think Kurt Turner knew how things would turn out if he let Dad go abroad to cut that deal. What better way to get rid of the competition than to publicly discredit him?”

He shook his head. “I’m afraid I’m not following you.”

“The trip to England was one of those ‘good news, bad news’ stories. The Acmic Chemicals people loved
him, and even though they hadn’t made the low bid, Pinnacle won the contract…and the stress of cutting the deal cost Dad his life.”

He heaved a deep sigh. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

Dara would have preferred that in place of the sympathetic, caring tone, he’d continued behaving like the coldhearted shark she’d thought him to be in the first place. At least then she wouldn’t be fighting tears right now.

She hadn’t let self-pity dictate her actions to this point, and she refused to allow it to control her emotions now. Dara looked around the office, forced herself to see the place she’d so often visited over the years. Dozens of times since the funeral, she’d tried to talk herself into coming here, packing up her father’s personal belongings and bringing them home. But there had always seemed to be a valid reason to put it off: weeds in the flower beds; students’ papers to grade; a trip to the vet with her cat, Lucy…

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