Claiming His Secret Heir

By: Joanne Rock

CHAPTER 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.

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