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Claiming His Secret Heir

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«Claiming His Secret Heir» - Джоанна Рок

Secrets, lies and love will come to the surface!Damon McNeill’s wife has returned a year after leaving him – but between her amnesia and the baby boy she’s cradling, he’s suddenly unsure of what really happened. Will he untangle the deception surrounding her disappearance in time to salvage their marriage?
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Can he win back his wife?

When Caroline McNeill shows up outside her husband’s mansion, she claims to have no memory of the past year...or their passion-filled honeymoon. But faking amnesia is the only way Caroline can find out if Damon was behind her abduction. She needs to trust him—a man she craves but still barely knows—before she can tell him about their infant son. Did the Silicon Valley mogul merely marry to claim an inheritance then dispose of her? Or is what they share real and forever?

Holy. Hell.

Damon stopped on the stone driveway leading down to the wrought iron gate.

A woman stood outside the heavy bars, her fingers clutching the filigree that surrounded the house number in the center of the entrance. She was the right height. Even from this distance, he could recognize those dark brown eyes. The delectably full lips. The hair that had once been sun-streaked blond was now a shade of honey-gold pinned back in a way that showed hollows under cheeks formerly rounded with good health. Her frame was thinner. Her skin paler. And her expression was wary, lacking the vibrant self-confidence of the capable businesswoman he remembered.

Yet there wasn’t a single doubt in his mind.

“Caroline.”

He forced himself into motion again, even though he had no idea what he would say to his long-lost wife.

* * *

Claiming His Secret Heir

is part of the McNeill Magnates trilogy:

Those McNeill men just have a way with women.

Claiming His Secret Heir

Joanne Rock



www.millsandboon.co.uk

Four-time RITA® Award nominee JOANNE ROCK has penned over seventy stories for Mills & Boon. An optimist by nature and a perpetual seeker of silver linings, Joanne finds romance fits her life outlook perfectly—love is worth fighting for. A former Golden Heart® Award recipient, she has won numerous awards for her stories. Learn more about Joanne’s imaginative Muse by visiting her website, www.joannerock.com, or following @joannerock6 on Twitter.

To you. Yes, you, my reader.

Thank you for choosing this book to read,

and for spending some of your valuable time

with me. Whether you’re reading one of

my stories for the first time, or you’ve read

many of my books over the years,

I appreciate you more than I can say.

I hope our shared love of romance brings

us together again down the road.

Contents

Back Cover Text

Introduction

Title Page

About the Author

Dedication

One

Two

Three

html#litres_trial_promo" id="back_litres_trial_promo"> Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Epilogue

Extract

Copyright

One

Steeling herself against the January chill, Caroline Degraff stood outside the gates of the Los Altos Hills mansion that would have been hers and wondered how to get in.

Her grip tightened on the wrought iron fence separating her from the French château-style home she’d helped to design but never lived in. Caroline guessed that she would already be visible on the property’s security footage. Too late to turn back now from this crazy idea to show up unannounced.

Prepared to deceive the husband she’d once loved.

But she had to know the truth about the powerful man on the other side of this imposing enclosure dotted with motion-detecting cameras. The man she’d married eleven months ago but hadn’t seen since their honeymoon, tech company mogul Damon McNeill. Her father, a well-known investor in Silicon Valley projects, had hated Damon even before the marriage. He’d sent Caroline into Damon’s California-based social media software business, Transparent, as an entrepreneur in residence—a common practice in tech start-ups that could benefit from an outside business perspective—in the hope she’d find weaknesses Damon’s investors could use to oust him from the CEO position. Except Caroline had fallen in love with Damon rather than give her father the scathing scouting report he’d craved.

She hadn’t known until that time in her life how cold and manipulative her father could be. He’d called Caroline a traitor and refused to attend the wedding, preventing anyone else in her family from doing so, as well. That had hurt her deeply, but she’d been so in love with Damon, it hadn’t mattered. The weeks they’d spent together in Italy for their honeymoon had been the happiest days of her life.

Then she’d travelled briefly to London on her own after the honeymoon. From there things got fuzzy in her mind. She remembered she’d argued with Damon on the phone because she’d seen her father while she was in London. But she also remembered returning to this very house overlooking San Francisco Bay. She’d never even seen Damon that day, and she’d been trying not to notice too many details of their new, custom-built home so they could enjoy it together when he got home from work. Then, while she’d been staring out over the Bay, she’d heard him enter the house.

Only it hadn’t been him. After that, her memories of the ordeal were totally blurry. But she knew that day had been the beginning of a months-long nightmare. She’d been kidnapped and held for a ransom Damon never paid. He’d never informed her father at all. He hadn’t even reported her as missing; the story was absent from all the news sites she’d scoured online.

Grinding her teeth together, she felt the old signs of fear and claustrophobia, the racing heart and cold sweats. These were the physical symptoms of panic attacks she’d been working for weeks to overcome with the help of a good therapist. She still wasn’t able to shake the effect of weeks spent scared and alone, captive in a remote village somewhere on the Baja Peninsula, with guards who treated her humanely enough, but never let her forget that they would kidnap one of her younger siblings, too, if she didn’t do as she was told.

Thoughts of Damon rescuing her had gotten her through the nights. Along with the comforting knowledge of their child growing inside her. A child she hadn’t even been able to tell him about before the abduction.

“Ma’am?” A young man called to her through the wrought iron fence, making Caroline jump back from the scrolled gate. “Can I help you? Is the call button acting up out there or is the main house not answering?”

Her heart thumped so fast and so hard she couldn’t speak for a moment. Everything felt frozen while her pulse rate skyrocketed and the guy with a man-bun, and carrying a pair of gardening clippers, came closer.

Who would ever believe she had graduated with honors from a prestigious East Coast business program when she couldn’t even find her tongue to answer a simple question? Who would guess she’d helped her investor father to make millions on the two other tech start-ups she’d recommended he buy, back before her life fell apart?

These days, Caroline didn’t even trust her memory of what happened yesterday, let alone last year. She’d been drugged a few times during her captivity with roofie-style pills that made past events fuzzy.

Between that and vicious bouts of morning sickness, her health had been in serious decline by the time her captors rowed her out to a remote island and left her stocked with enough food for a month, unguarded and alone. Thankfully, the drugs hadn’t harmed her baby, but she’d been too ill to try looking for help. When she’d regained enough strength to do so, just two months before her due date, a fisherman had found her and contacted her father.

“Ma’am?” The gardener tossed aside a handful of dead roses and set down his heavy trimmer. With just a tee on, he seemed oblivious to the chill in the air. “If you go around to the back entrance, I can let you in the service gate.”

Caroline swallowed down the panic as she remembered her therapist’s affirming words. You are strong and capable. Trust your instincts.

“Is Mr. McNeill home?” She had to see Damon. To learn for herself if he’d only married her to win a favorable review of his company for the sake of the investors. Was it just to cling to his CEO position for another year and keep control of Transparent?

Had her charismatic husband duped her completely, even going so far as to marry her for profit?

Or had her father been feeding her lies from the day he’d quietly brought her back to one of the family homes in Vancouver to deliver her baby? Damon had made it impossible for her to contact him directly—his cell phone was disconnected and he wasn’t responding to emails. Calls to his office weren’t returned, although she had been too afraid to leave her real name, worried her father would find out she’d gone behind his back and contacted her husband. All along, her father had insisted Damon wanted nothing to do with her, and her internet searches seemed to support that. Her father had shown her a tabloid article that speculated about how Damon’s grandfather had recently required his heirs be married for one year to inherit a portion of the McNeill legacy. Caroline hadn’t even known Damon was related to those McNeills, one of the richest families in New York, but now she wondered if their marriage had been purely for business reasons.

But she’d certainly discovered a few disconcerting clues in the last two weeks that made her think her father could be manipulating her. Transparent had a board meeting one week from now, and she wanted to learn the truth before her father maneuvered Damon out of his CEO position.

“I think Mr. McNeill is here today, but you need an appointment to see him.” The gardener peered at her curiously, perhaps wondering why any guest of a multimillionaire tech genius would show up at the gate with no vehicle and dressed more like domestic help.

She’d debated her strategy until she felt ill about it. But there was no other way. Damon had abandoned the cell number she had for him and wasn’t responding to her other attempts to contact him. He hadn’t launched a public search for her or filed a missing person report. If it was just about her and their marriage—maybe Caroline would simply walk away and start over.

But she had their six-week-old son to think about. And if there was any chance that what she and Damon had shared was real, she needed to understand what happened. Why he was carrying on his life as if she’d never existed.

“He’ll want to see me.” She hoped. She didn’t have to fake the nervous tremble of her fingers as she fumbled in the back pocket of faded jeans and removed the tattered piece of paper her sister had found hidden in their father’s den. “I want to ask him about this.”

The document looked like it had gone through the washer and dryer a few times. Or maybe it had fallen into the Pacific with her once, when she’d tried to escape her captors. Caroline genuinely didn’t remember. She’d suffered amnesia during the ordeal, but her memories were coming back.

Not that Damon McNeill needed to know.

“A marriage certificate?” Squinting at the washed-out ink, the gardener scratched the spot under the man-bun, shifting the dark hair side-to-side. “For Mr. McNeill?”

“I’m Caroline Degraff.” She pointed to the name on the second line, trying to recapture the sense of shock she’d felt when her sister first showed her the paper.

She hadn’t recalled the marriage for weeks after her father rescued her, yet he’d never mentioned it until she confronted him. He’d tried to keep her isolated from her family so she wouldn’t learn the truth. Her mother was dead, her younger brothers at boarding school and her sister had been at university in the States. What else had he kept from her about her marriage? About Damon? Her therapist had gently suggested that Caroline had been subjected to gaslighting.

The gardener’s gaze flicked up from the paper. “You’re Mr. McNeill’s wife?”

Her throat went dry. She remembered enough about Damon to know he might never forgive her for this deception she had planned. But if he’d been the one tricking her into romance in the first place, what would it matter?

She was going to fake amnesia to find out what he had to say about her disappearance. She had to know for sure if her father had been lying to her about her husband.

“I’m honestly not sure.” She allowed all the doubts and fears of the last months to come through in her voice. That much was not an act. “We’ll have to ask him because...” She bit her lip and blinked back the swell of emotion before she spilled out a lie that was crucial to getting the answers she needed for her child. “I don’t remember.”

* * *

“What did you just say?” Damon McNeill pressed the pause button on the video he’d been watching on the big screen in the downstairs media room.

He’d asked not to be disturbed while he watched a hacker’s demonstration of how to unlock the security on the software Damon’s company was bringing to market in the spring. The hacker had found legitimate issues Damon’s technical team would need to patch. If he asked his own staff to troubleshoot, he would have gotten thirty-page reports that gave him the all-clear to go into production. Ask a twenty-two-year-old who busted complex digital coding for the thrills and the cash? He got results in forty-eight hours.

Except he’d have to rewind the video to the start now, because he couldn’t keep his focus on the demonstration when he was getting calls from the housekeeping service. Damn it. He’d only hired outside help to get the house ready to put on the market since he didn’t want to keep the place he’d barely set foot in since construction had finished a year ago.

Caroline had loved their Los Altos Hills home, spending weeks with the architect to get the design just right. And yet she’d disappeared from the property mere hours after setting foot in it for the first time after it was completed. That was more than enough reason for him to want the house gone from his life forever.

“Mr. McNeill, there’s a woman at the gate.” The head of the maid service had arrived this morning to personally oversee the housecleaning and stage photos for the Realtor. “She says she’s your wife.”

The phone slid from his hand, dropping halfway down to the chair before Damon slapped at it, stopping the descent by pinning the cell to his chest.

He went motionless, holding the device in place while keeping his heart in his rib cage at the same time.

What. The. Hell.

“What kind of joke is this?” He knew Caroline couldn’t be out there. He’d hired private investigators to find her. He’d paid a ransom to someone claiming to have kidnapped her. He’d searched half the world for her himself, convinced something had happened to her even though her wealthy and powerful father insisted Caroline had simply found Damon unsuitable and no longer wished to be married.

Stephan Degraff had said Caroline wished to travel and was entitled to her privacy, a story that was upheld by the occasional hits on her credit card. An apartment rented briefly in Prague. A used car purchased in Kiev.

Damon had never bought it.

He shot to his feet.

“No joke, sir.” The housekeeper’s voice was cool and modulated, as if she’d grown accustomed to disagreeable clients long ago. “She has a marriage certificate with your name on it and she looks like the photograph I’m staring at over the mantel. Shall we open the gate?”

Caroline on his doorstep after her father insisted she’d seen the error of her ways in marrying Damon and had walked out on him for good? Not damn well likely.

“I’ll be right there.” Damon was already charging toward the door. He shoved his way through with one shoulder. “Find the number for the local police, in case we need to send this crackpot a message about what happens to people who play pranks like impersonating my wife.”

Cold fury roared through him. Caroline had been gone for ten and a half months. He’d chased false leads all over Europe, tracking withdrawals from her bank account and use of her credit card, trying to find her. All the while her father insisted she’d left her marriage and wished to be left alone. But then a ransom note had shown up weeks later, which he saw as proof she’d been kidnapped. But the police had never believed the kidnapping theory, insistent the ransom note was sent by someone who took advantage of her disappearance by demanding cash for her safe return.

Damon had gladly paid, transferring money to an offshore account on the appointed day. He’d never heard from the so-called kidnappers again.

Pounding his way up the stairs to the main floor, he couldn’t wait to see who would have the nerve to pull a prank like this. He barreled through the handcrafted double doors that had delayed their move-in date by two weeks and stalked down the stone walkway covered in dried leaves that led to a fountain imported from India.

He hated all of it. And he rarely had an outlet for any of the fury that had seethed in him for weeks—fury that was a welcome change from the old fears for Caroline, the guilt that he hadn’t done more to find her and the stark sense of loss...

Holy. Hell.

He stopped on the stone driveway leading down to the wrought iron gate.

A woman stood outside the heavy bars, her fingers clutching the filigree that surrounded the house number in the center of the entrance. She was the right height. Even from this distance, he could recognize those dark brown eyes. The delectably full lips. The hair that had once been sun-streaked blond was now a shade of honey gold and pinned back in a way that showed hollows under cheeks formerly rounded with good health. Her frame was thinner. Her skin paler. And her expression was wary, lacking the vibrant self-confidence of the capable businesswoman he remembered.

Yet there wasn’t a single doubt in his mind.

Caroline Degraff had blindsided him the first time they met, igniting an incendiary passion that made him overlook every need for caution. Her father coveted Damon’s company, but it didn’t matter. Stephan Degraff had sent his smart, exquisite daughter to spy on Damon’s operation, possibly to undermine him and oust him from his own company. But who cared? Damon would have given up everything—everything—to have Caroline.

Just when he’d thought he’d won her forever, after a honeymoon so beautiful that it hurt to recall, Caroline had vanished. She took her wallet and her car, a bag of clothes and a few prescription pills, all signs that, according to the cops, meant she left of her own volition. Her powerful father had convinced the police his daughter was entitled to her privacy and that she would file for divorce in her own time. The fact that Caroline left behind her wedding ring seemed to support the theory. Local law enforcement refused to file a missing person report, leaving Damon on his own to locate her. He’d been advised by multiple private investigators and the police not to talk to the media, so he hadn’t. A story had been leaked to the press at one point, but her father had forced the news outlet to print a retraction. His lone effort to reach out to the public—discreetly asking for any information about her from the employees who had worked with them both at Transparent—had resulted in that ransom note.

Yet he never saw Caroline again.

Until now.

It occurred to him he’d stopped moving toward her. That he’d been staring at her like he’d seen a ghost for long, drawn-out moments, his head flooding with memories while his fingers ached with the need to touch her and see if she was real.

“Caroline.” He forced himself into motion again, even though he had no idea what to say. Had she left him? Was she here for that divorce her father promised she would one day demand?

She backed up a step from the gate as he neared. She wore jeans with threadbare knees and faded thighs that hugged her subtle curves. A gray wool sweater with fat toggle buttons kept the chill out; the temperature was in the midfifties, with a cold breeze blowing off the bay. She wore no makeup, her face looking younger even as the expression in her eyes seemed far older than he remembered. She looked wary. Cautious.

And, if he read her expression correctly...confused. She appeared bewildered by his appearance even though she was the one who had shown up on his doorstep.

“Damon McNeill?” she asked, her arched eyebrows knitting together as she pursed her lips.

Just what the hell was she asking him? He noticed that one of the guys on the landscaping crew was hovering nearby, a crinkled piece of paper in his hand.

Damon pressed a button on his phone to open the electric gate and stared down the gardener while the bars slid silently to one side. “You can leave now. Water the roses or whatever.”

“Sure thing.” The guy nodded fast and seemed grateful for an excuse to leave, but first he ambled closer and handed Damon the faded, worn paper. “She said she found this.”

Damon would have stuffed it in a back pocket to focus on Caroline, but the gold seal in one corner caught his eye.

Their marriage certificate.

“I don’t understand.” He moved closer to the wife who had once held his heart. The woman who now stared at him like a stranger. “Why did you bring this?”

His pulse pounded hard. He braced himself to hear the words he dreaded. The news that she wanted to end their marriage legally. Forever.

Alone on the private road that led to the mansion, she stuffed her hands in the pockets of the oversized sweater she wore, the fabric hugging her body tighter at the movement.

There’d been a time when he would have picked her up off her feet and wrapped her in both arms. Even not knowing where she’d been, what had happened or why she’d come back now, Damon still wanted to kiss her more than he wanted explanations. Something about her body language, so hesitant, restrained him.

“You’re Damon.” She seemed to seek confirmation, her brown eyes flecked with gold scanning his face, as if calculating the sum of his features. “I saw your photo online, but you look so much like your brother. Cameron.”

Half brother, he silently corrected her while his brain tried to make meaning out of the nonsensical words.

“It’s been less than a year since you saw me last. Do I look so different now?” He’d kissed her for long minutes in the airport in Florence, hating to part from her after the honeymoon. Their home in Los Altos Hills—this house—hadn’t been completed yet. So she’d gone to see a friend in London while he flew back to the States for business that couldn’t wait. Business he’d come to regret sorely in the last ten months, especially since they’d argued during the time they’d been apart and he’d always wondered if that had been the reason she left.

As it turned out, she hadn’t just been seeing her friend, after all. She’d gone to the UK to make amends with her father, who would give anything to take control of Transparent. Stephan Degraff’s plans to oust Damon were about to come to a head one week from now at the final board meeting before the product launched.

Had Caroline been helping her father take over Damon’s company from the start?

“I don’t remember.” Her eyes were haunted. Scared. Unsure. “I’ve been in Mexico. With amnesia. I remembered my name two months ago, but it’s taken time to recall more than that.” She glanced up and away from him. Shut her eyes for a long moment before she began again. “I’ve had this paper ever since I woke up in a fishing village on the Baja Peninsula. But at the time, I didn’t even know that name was mine.”

Damon could not have been more stunned if she’d been the ghost he’d first imagined. Amnesia? A bracing gust of wind sucked the breath right out of him.

“You don’t remember me? Us?” He tried to envision what this meant for them. Behind him, he heard the sprinkler system switch on.

“Nothing.” She shook her head slowly, a wave of her honey-gold hair bumping her cheek. “I looked you up online weeks ago, but I’ve been scared to come because there was...no mention of me being missing. No photos of us together.” She lifted her shoulders in an awkward shrug. “I thought maybe the marriage certificate was fake. Or that we divorced and you’d moved on—”

“No.” He’d been living in a state of suspended animation without her. Hell, he couldn’t call it “living” at all. He’d spent his time chasing leads about her all over the globe, incapable of “respecting her privacy” the way her father had demanded. “I’ve searched everywhere for you.”

He wanted answers about where she’d been. If she’d been kidnapped or if she’d left him of her own free will. His private investigators had spent endless hours chasing down fake leads for her whereabouts—it was as if she’d wanted to purposely disappear, or someone had spent significant time making it look that way.

He still had her wedding rings that she’d left behind.

But he remembered reading somewhere that chasing memories wasn’t good for an amnesia victim. And didn’t the fact that she was suffering from amnesia suggest she’d been through a trauma already? The need to protect her—to make sure nothing else hurt her—overrode everything else. He needed to keep her safe and get her healthy.

And, selfishly, he couldn’t help but see her return as a second chance.

If she’d left him, she didn’t remember.

Once she was well and whole again, Damon had a chance to rewrite history. To show her they could be good together again.

To win her back.

“I don’t know where I’ve been. My memories should come back in time.” She pulled a hand from her sweater pocket and smoothed aside the wave of hair that brushed her cheek. For a moment, he could see the old Caroline in the gesture. The vibrant, flirtatious woman who had captivated him the moment she strode into his office, demanding a position on his team. “But until they do, I’m not sure where to go. I’ve been at a shelter the last two nights.”

The idea appalled him. How long had they been in the same state while he’d been lost in alternating bouts of grief and bitterness, not knowing what had happened to her?

“You were right to come home.” He stepped closer, careful to give her space but needing to touch her.

She flinched and backed up a step, reminding him that they might be married but they were still essentially strangers in her mind.

She just needed time. Something he was more than happy to give her since he was determined to help her remember how happy they’d been together before that one stupid argument. And, hell, if she hadn’t been happy, he’d make her remember something better than that.

“You belong here, Caroline,” he assured her. “Always.”

.

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