Fierce Love - By Phoebe Conn

Chapter One
Come to me.

Had Miguel Aragon not signed the checks for Maggie's college tuition and expenses, she wouldn't have recognized her father's bold, angular writing.

Come to me.

The single sheet of fine vellum was embossed with the golden crest of the medieval kingdom of Aragon. She ran her fingertips lightly over the hastily inked signature.

Come to me.

The threat of tears stung her hazel eyes. She set the precious letter aside rather than allow the salty drops to ruin the only personal note she'd ever received from the father who had been so generous with his wealth but not his time. Her hand trembled as she tucked a long sable curl behind her ear.

Come to me.

Why had he summoned her now? she agonized, when she was a grown woman who'd successfully silenced the painful longings of a child's lonely heart. Was it mere curiosity that had prompted this urgent summons? He would be sadly disappointed if he imagined her to be as lovely a blonde as her mother, a woman he'd divorced with heartless haste more than twenty years ago.

Come to me.

Repelled by the usually soothing view of the Tucson Mountains, she left the comfortably cushioned window seat and paced the living room. Peter Gunderson, her mother's second husband, was the only father she'd known, although their relationship had been an awkward one.

She'd always been acutely aware that she wasn't truly his, and now regretted not loving him as a daughter should. In the evenings, when he'd come home from his law office, her half sisters would erupt in gleeful giggles and throw themselves into his wide-open arms. She'd shyly glance up from her homework, wait for the end of Libby's and Patty's exuberant exchange with their beaming father and voice a soft, painfully self-conscious, "Hello."

Her mother had never described her brief marriage to Miguel Aragon, and Maggie suspected the dear woman was ashamed to have ever known the Spaniard, let alone borne him a raven-haired daughter. Maggie had been too bright not to reach the logical conclusion that her existence created a lingering source of shame. They lived in Edina, Minnesota, a Swedish enclave, and she was surrounded by children with angelic, fair coloring. Her exotic looks often inspired cruel teasing.

The year she'd been in second grade, her mother had made her a Gypsy costume for Halloween with a beautiful black velvet skirt and vest. Her classmates had taunted her as though the word Gypsy itself were obscene, and she'd run home in tears. Her mother had been appalled her classmates had not appreciated the charming costume and had silenced her sobs with a captivating description of beautiful Spanish Gypsies who danced with a fiery grace. It was an image Maggie still cherished, and although the nickname Gypsy had stuck, she regarded it as a compliment.

She returned to the window seat, looped her arms around her bent knees and let her memories drift to a far more profoundly affecting conversation with her mother. Instantly, the remarkable afternoon came back in pristine clarity.

Her little sisters were napping, and after a whispered plea for silence, her mother had drawn her into the bedroom she shared with Peter. It was decorated in creamy peach wallpaper strewn with white roses. The girls were never allowed to play there, so being invited into her parents' sanctuary was a rare treat. Unlike the traditional decor throughout the rest of the house, their bedroom was furnished with elegant antiques, and against the pervasive silence, the faint tick of the brass alarm clock atop the marble-topped table created a raucous din.

She'd held her breath as her mother knelt beside the wide bed to reach underneath for a mahogany box similar to the one holding their holiday sterling silver. They sat together on the thickly cushioned rug. Maggie was disappointed when the box held only faded newspaper clippings and old photographs.

"Perhaps I should have shown these to you before now," her mother murmured apologetically, "but when you were small, you wouldn't have understood who this man is."

Now intrigued, Maggie had moved closer while her mother sorted through the family photographs. At last, her mother found two showing her at eighteen with a handsome, dark-haired young man. They were at a crowded fraternity party, and the photographer had caught them with their heads together, laughing as they shared the fun. In the second, they were dancing with their lithe bodies so closely entwined neither was recognizable except for their clothes. The third was a group of men, and Maggie easily picked