A Brand of Christmas by Maggie Shayne

Garrett Brand awoke in a cold sweat, some foreign kind of dread gnawing at his stomach. Heart pounding, he sat up fast and wide-eyed, his fists clenching defensively before he got hold of himself. Blinking the sleep haze from his eyes and taking a few deep breaths, he let his tense muscles relax and unclenched his fists. There was nothing wrong. There was no reason for that panicky feeling that had slipped through him like a ghost slipping through a wall. No reason at all.
A Brand of Christmas
A Brand of Christmas by Maggie Shayne
And still he couldn’t shake it. It hadn’t been a bad dream. Far as Garrett could recall, he’d been sleeping like a bear in January until that odd feeling had jerked him awake. Okay, he’d just take stock. He sat in the middle of his king-size bed and scanned the room. Red sunlight spilled through the open window, but the curtains hung motionless. No breeze. Already the early-morning air grew heavier, hotter. He listened, but didn’t hear anything he hadn’t ought to. A horse blowing now and then. A handful of songbirds. Still, the feeling that something was wrong remained. Garrett had never been much for ESP or any of that nonsense. But stories he’d heard about mothers knowing instinctively when something was wrong with their kids floated through his mind now. He was no mother to Wes, Elliot and Jessi. No father to them, either. But he was as close to a parent as they’d had in almost twenty years. He’d only been seventeen when Orrin and Maria Brand had been killed in that car accident, leaving him as sole caretaker to his five younger siblings. And when he thought about anything happening to any of them… An odd sound reached him then, a sound that made the hairs on his nape prickle. Soft and faint, but out of place, whatever it was. Garrett pulled on his jeans, socks and boots in the space of a couple of seconds. He didn’t bother with a shirt. But he did yank the revolver out of his top dresser drawer and gave the cylinder a quick spin to be sure it was loaded. On the way out, he snatched the black Stetson from the bedpost and dropped it on his head. It was a gesture so automatic it was done without forethought. Like breathing. Softly, Garrett moved along the hallway to the next bedroom. He was glad of the braided runner covering the hardwood floor. It cushioned and muffled his steps. He stopped outside the door. Elliot’s room, though if you looked inside, you’d think it belonged to a ten-year-old boy, not a man of twenty-five. Lariats and spurs decorated the walls, along with a collection of hats and framed photos of champion cowboys. His closet was an explosion of fringed chaps and hand-tooled boots. Only the sizes had changed over the years. Elliot’s dreams never had. He’d lived for the rodeo since he’d been old enough to say the word. Garrett held his Colt, barrel up in his right hand, and pushed the door open with his left. The hinges creaked loudly when Garrett stepped through, and Elliot’s sleeping face twisted into a grimace. “Whaddya want?” he muttered, still half-asleep. Relieved, Garrett stifled his sigh. “I thought I heard something is all. Go back to sleep.” He backed toward the door. Elliot sat up, his rusty hair so tousled he looked like an angry rooster. “What the hell you doing with the gun, Garrett?” “I told you, I thought I heard something.” “So you’re gonna shoot it?” This as he climbed out of bed in a pair of baggy pajama bottoms with rearing mustangs all over them. Garrett shook his head, not ready to discuss the odd feeling that had awakened him. “I’m going to check on the others.” “I’m coming with you,” Elliot said with a pointed look at Garrett’s gun. “Just in case you’ve been so responsible and levelheaded for so long that it’s finally driven you over the edge.” Garrett sent him a glare, but Elliot only returned a wink and a crooked grin as he grabbed his hat off the dresser and plunked it on top of his unruly red hair. They slipped into the hall, and Garrett moved past the next two doors. Adam and Ben had gone their own way last year. Adam had hightailed it to New York City, ostensibly because of a job offer in some bigwig corporation. But everyone knew he’d really moved away because Kirsten Armstrong had left him at the altar to marry an older, richer man, and Adam couldn’t stand being in the same town with her anymore. Ben, of course, was trying to find some peace. The hills of Tennessee, where he was living like a hermit, wouldn’t heal him, though. Only time could do that, Garrett thought. Ben’s young wife had died just about a year ago, and even though they’d both known she was terminal before they’d married, the blow of finally losing her had almost done Ben in. Garrett and Elliot reached the next room. Wes’s. If there were trouble, Wes was likely to be involved. Oh, he’d calmed down a lot since prison. But he still wasn’t over the anger of being sent there unjustly. It was a rage Garrett supposed would eat at a man for a long time. And with Wes’s temper…well, an explosion always seemed within shouting distance. He tapped on the door, didn’t walk in the way he’d done with Elliot. Wes was still pretty riled up over returning home to find his half brother wearing a badge. And he’d developed a real touchy attitude about privacy, too, while he’d been away. No sense pushing his buttons by walking in unannounced, gun in hand. The door opened and Wes stood there looking more like a Comanche warrior than a Brand at that moment, despite the jeans and pale denim shirt. His dark hair hung to his shoulders—longer than a man of thirty ought to be wearing it, Garrett thought—and his eyes gleamed like onyx. His Comanche mother had named him Raven Eyes, and Garrett had always thought it incredibly appropriate. “What is it?” Garrett shrugged. “I’m not sure. Did you hear anything unusual just now?” “No, but I was-” A high, soft sound interrupted Wes, and he went rigid. It seemed to come from farther down the hall, and all three heads turned in that direction. Jessi’s room. A second later, the three of them stampeded for their twenty-two-year-old baby sister’s door. Garrett saw Wes pull that damn bowie knife of his from his boot with a move so quick and smooth and practiced, it seemed to have just materialized in his hand. They stopped outside Jessi’s door, and the sound came again. Not a normal cry. But obviously one of distress. Garrett’s blood ran cold when he tried the knob and found the door locked. He didn’t even think about it first. He just stepped back and kicked it open. Three Brand men exploded into Jessi’s bedroom at once, one holding a Colt, one wielding a bowie and the other poised with fists raised in a boxer’s stance, though the effect was probably ruined by the horsey pajamas. Jessi screeched as she whirled to face them. Then she just rolled her eyes and shook her head. “You idiots! You almost scared me right outta my slippers!” “Sorry, Jes,” Garrett told her, feeling more foolish by the minute. “I thought I heard—” “Me, too,” Jessi said. “But it’s coming from outside.” She jerked her head in the direction of her open bedroom window. Garrett lowered his revolver, sighing in relief. “You okay, Jessi?” She only smiled and shook her short-cropped head in vexation. “How could I not be with you three on duty?” Giving her bathrobe sash a tug for good measure, she shouldered past them, apparently on her way downstairs to investigate the noise. It was Wes who gripped her shoulder and gently stepped in front of her without a word. She made a face at him, but stayed behind him as they headed through the hall to the wide staircase and started down it, Wes and Garrett in the lead, Jessi and Elliot behind them. “I think you guys are overreacting. Sounds like a lost calf or something.” “Shh,” Elliot warned, but Jessi had never really known when to shut up. “Garrett, you haven’t got the sense God gave a goat if you think anyone up to no-good would be lurking around the Texas Brand. Everyone knows you’re the sheriff.” “Be quiet, Jessi,” Garrett ordered. They’d reached the bottom of the staircase. The parlor spread out before them, but there was nothing out of place. The huge fireplace they used only rarely. A wide picture window on the far left side that looked out over the lawn and the driveway, and the one on the back wall that faced the barns and unending, flat green fields beyond. They gave no clue. The knotty hardwood walls had nothing to say. The golden oak gun cabinet stood silent, its glass doors still locked up tight. Blue wasn’t in his usual spot in front of the window, though. That alone signaled something wrong. That dog barely moved enough to breathe. They continued on through the wide archway into the dining room and through that to the kitchen. The front door loomed at the far end, and there was ol’ Blue, poised beside it. Not growling, though. His tail was wagging. Wagging! Hell, he was about twenty dog years past his wagging days. He stared at the door, tilting his big head from one side to another. His ears as perked as ears that long and floppy could perk. The two black spots above his eyes rose in question as if they were eyebrows. Garrett tried to swallow, but it felt as if his throat were full of sand. He knew his family—and apparently his dog—thought he was overreacting, but he couldn’t shake this feeling, this ominous certainty that something drastic was about to happen. Something horrible must be awaiting him on the other side of that door. “Stay here,” he said. “Until I make sure it’s safe.” “Always the hero,” Jessi muttered. Garrett ignored her and moved forward as his stomach tied itself up in knots. He unlocked the front door and opened it to step out onto the porch. And then he just stood there, gaping. A basket sat at his feet. A big basket. And inside the basket, rapidly kicking free of the thin blankets tucked around it, was a fat, smiling baby. Garrett stared down at the infant, too stunned to do much more than push his Stetson farther back on his head. From behind him, he heard, “Well, I’ll be…” and “Who do you suppose…” and “What in the world…” The baby, though, only had eyes for Garrett. Blue eyes, so blue their whites seemed to have a slight blue tint. It stared at him hard, and then it smiled again, a small trickle of drool running from one corner of its mouth to its double—no, triple—chin. Blue pushed past the crowd in the doorway and stood two feet from the baby. He looked from it, to Garrett and back again. “Gaa!” the baby announced. Blue jumped out of his skin and retreated a few steps. “Ooohh,” Jessi sang, and then she was passing Garrett, scooping that baby up into her arms and snuggling it close to her. “Garrett, there’s a bag over there, and it looks like a note’s attached,” Elliot said, pointing. Garrett saw a little satchel with blue and yellow bunnies all over it. A thin red haze of anger clouded his vision, and shoving his gun into his jeans, he turned to face his two brothers, ready to knock their teeth out. “So, which one of you is responsible for this?” They just looked at him, then at each other. “How many times have I talked to you about responsibility? Huh? How many times have I told you what it means to father a child? It means you take care of it, dammit. It means you marry the woman and you—” “Um, Garrett?” “Not now, Jes. But pay attention. You need to hear this, too. Don’t ever let any sweet-talking cowboy with no sense of honor, like either one of these two fine examples right here, talk you into—” “Garrett, you better read this.” Something in her voice made him clamp his jaw shut. Wes and Elliot, though, both looked decidedly uncomfortable, and he could tell they were mentally going through their list of one-night stands to determine which of them might have resulted in this mess. Garrett wanted to scream and rant and shake them. He’d tried so hard to instill some ethics into them, to be a good example. He never drank, never whored around town the way some did. Hell, he’d been working so hard at showing them how to be men, he’d become known as the most morally upright, impeccably mannered, responsible, reliable, stand-up guy in the state of Texas. To think that one of his own brothers… “‘You were more kind to me than anyone I’d ever known,’” Jessi began, and Garrett came to attention when he realized she was reading from the note. “‘Though it was only for one night, I never forgot you. And I knew I could count on you to take care of our son when I realized I no longer could.’” “You ought to be pretty damned proud of yourselves,” Garrett muttered. Blue sat down close beside him, staring at Wes and Elliot, as well. Jessi read on. ‘“He’s six months old this week. He hates strained peas, but will eat most anything else.’” “Well, now, that much is obvious,” Elliot joked. But no one laughed. “‘I named him after his father. I only hope he’ll grow up to be half the man you are.’” Garrett felt his two brothers tense beside him when Jessi looked up, her eyes round and dark brown. “Go on, Jessi,” he urged. “Read the name.” She blinked at him, eyes wider than a startled doe’s before she lowered them to the page once more. “‘His name is Garrett Ethan. But I call him Ethan. Please, Garrett, love him. Just love him, and I’ll be at peace.’” He’d been poleaxed right between the eyes. For a second, he didn’t move, and nobody else did, either, except that Wes and Elliot seemed to sag just a bit. Relief would do that to a man. Then Garrett shook his head at the absurdity of it all and snatched the letter from his little sister’s hand. His eyes sped over the lines. “Hell, this thing isn’t even signed!” “What’s the matter, big brother,” Elliot chirped, thumbs hooked in the waistband of his baggy pajama bottoms, a lopsided grin pulling at his lips. “Been so many you can’t remember her name?” Garrett clenched his jaw and drew a breath. Calm. He needed calm here. “This is bull. I didn’t father that kid any more than Sam Houston did. It’s bull.” “Sure it is, Garrett.” Elliot shrugged and glanced at the squirming baby anchored on Jessi’s slender hip. “Well, I’ll be damned….” “What?” “He has your nose!” Jessi joined Elliot in laughing out loud. “Dammit, Elliot—” “Maybe the sainted Garrett Brand has more of his father’s genes in him than we realized,” Wes broke in, but there wasn’t an ounce of humor in his voice. Garrett flinched at the barb, and turned to his sloe-eyed brother. “Wes, I didn’t speak to Pa for six months after I found out about his affair with your mother, and that was before I realized he’d fathered you and left you behind to come back to us. I wouldn’t do something like that.” Wes didn’t answer, only lifted his black brows and slanted a glance at the baby as if its very presence proved otherwise. Garrett groaned. “I can’t believe you guys don’t believe me.” “Oh, sure, Garrett! The way you’d have believed us if the little lady had scrawled one of our names on that note, right?” Elliot had a point, the little bastard. “Stop all this caterwaulin’. You’re scaring the baby!” Jessi rocked the wide-eyed child in her arms and cooed at him. “Doesn’t matter who fathered him, does it? He’s here now and we’ll just have to deal with it. Wes, that old wooden cradle is still stored up overhead in the toolshed, isn’t it? Go on out there and bring it in, get it cleaned up. And Elliot, the baby quilt Mamma made for me is upstairs in my cedar chest. Bring it out here and hang it over the railing so it can air out some. Garrett, bring the bag and follow me. This son of yours could use a fresh diaper, and you can bet the ranch I’m not doin’ it.” Wes and Elliot turned in opposite directions to do her bidding. Jessi reached for the screen door. “Hold up a second, all of you.” Three pairs of eyes turned to stare at him—no, four pairs. One pair of baby blues fixed on him like laser beams. Garrett swallowed the bile in his throat, cleared it and said what he had to. “We’re not keeping this baby.” Jessi blinked. Elliot shook his head. And Wes just stared at him, condemnation in his black eyes. “Look, I don’t know whose child he is, but I do know this. He ain’t mine.” “But, Garrett-” “No buts, Jessi. Somewhere, his real family is out there waiting for him. It wouldn’t be fair for us to keep him here. Now, I’m going inside and calling Social Services, and then—” “Not on a Saturday morning, you aren’t,” Elliot observed. He lifted his hat and replaced it at a more comfortable angle with just the right amount of smugness. The horsey pajamas ruined the effort, though. Again, the little bastard had a point. Quinn, Texas was a speck-on-the-map town in a county that wasn’t much bigger. There wasn’t a thing Garrett could do about this until Monday. Ah, hell, make that Tuesday. Monday was Memorial Day. “I’ll just go get that quilt,” Elliot said, and he let the screen door bang closed behind him. “I’ll change little Ethan,” Jessi offered, “this time. But don’t you start thinkin’ this is gonna become a habit.” She bent to pick up the bunny bag with her free hand. Garrett held the door for her. “He won’t be here long enough for it to become a habit, Jes.” Blue jumped up and trotted into the house beside Jessi. His sister shot Garrett a few daggers as she passed. But they were nothing compared to the glare of Wes’s eyes on his back. He felt as if his skin were being seared. He stiffened his shoulders and turned to face his silent accuser. Wes leaned against the porch railing, eyeing him. “It’s not my kid,” Garrett said, and the fact that he sounded so defensive made him as angry as the look in his brother’s eyes. “At least our father owned up to his mistakes, Garrett. When my mother died and he found out about me— “When Stands Alone died, Wes, it was my mother who found out about you, not Pa. She was the one who went to the reservation to find out if her suspicions were true, and once she knew, there was no question about your coming to live with us. If our father hadn’t done right by you, she’d have skinned him.” Wes straightened as Garrett spoke. “You saying Orrin wouldn’t have acknowledged me if Maria hadn’t forced him?” “I’m saying who the hell knows what he would have done. He was no saint, Wes.” “And neither is his firstborn,” Wes said in a dangerously soft voice. “No, I’m no saint. I never claimed to be. But I didn’t father that kid in there, and—” “And you don’t want him.” Wes turned away suddenly, an act that made his careless shrug a second later seem false. “What the hell do I care? I don’t even like kids.” He banged down the three porch steps and started along the well-worn path to the barn. Garrett would have gone after him, but changed his mind at Jessi’s shrill squawk—at least he thought it was Jessi’s. It might also have been a bald eagle caught in a blender, but he didn’t think that very likely. Ah, hell. He headed inside. Jessi had one hand at her stomach and the other over her mouth. Behind her, the baby lay on the parlor floor, his diaper undone, his legs in the air. Garrett took another step forward before the aroma hit him full in the face and made his eyes water. “I can’t do it, Garrett,” Jessi gasped, “and there’s nothing you can say to make me. Gawd!” She headed up the stairs at light speed. “Jessi!” No use. She was long gone. He heard the bedroom door slam, then refocused his gaze on the kid. Damn shame Jessi hadn’t laid some newspapers or something underneath him. Grimacing, he squared his shoulders and strode the rest of the way into the parlor. Blue whimpered from his spot on the floor in front of the window, where he tended to bask in the morning sunlight. Then he lowered his head and put both paws over his nose. “I know the feeling, Blue.” Garrett snatched up the bunny bag and dug into it. Clean diapers, that horrible disposable kind that lived for ten thousand years in the dump. If he ever had a kid, he’d use cloth. Good ol’ cotton, and… Taking another look at the condition of little Ethan’s diaper, he frowned again, seriously rethinking that position. Who’d wanna try to clean something like that? Hell, he’d swabbed out drunk tanks that had been more appealing than…that. He took a diaper from the bag, and a box of pre-moistened baby wipes, which made him raise his eyebrows. “Baby wipes, hell,” he muttered. “I think you need a high-pressure hose, kid.” “Dababa,” Ethan chirped. He wasn’t looking at Garrett. Instead, he held one foot in his hand and eyed his own toes with fascination. Garrett caught himself smiling like an idiot, checked it and dived into the bag again. This time, he emerged with a half-dozen mysterious items. Oil, ointment, powder. He wasn’t sure what to use, but figured he could safely rule out the teething lotion. “Baa!” “Yeah, I’m coming.” He dumped his plunder on the floor, snagged himself about thirty or so baby wipes and wished to God he had a clothespin for his nose and a pair of rubber gloves for his hands. As he hunkered down beside the kid, he revised that wish. What he needed was a full-fledged space suit. Despite the unpleasantness of it, though, the job didn’t take all that long. Snatch the dirty diaper off, clean him up, dust him with powder, tape a fresh diaper firmly in place. Now the question was, what the hell did he do with the, uh, used one? The trash pail in the kitchen was out of the question. He finally decided on the big can out behind the house, though he’d rather incinerate the thing than can it. If this kid ended up sticking around the Texas Brand, they were going to have to invest in an asbestos tank and a flamethrower. Gathering up the diaper and the used baby wipes, he glanced down at Ethan. The baby had managed to pull his foot all the way up to his face and was gnawing on one of his own toes. “Stunning good looks and talent, too,” Garrett told him. “Will wonders never cease? Stay where you are, Ethan.” “Buhbuhbuh,” the baby responded, a serious expression on his face. “Okay. Bubba it is. I’ll be right back, Bubba.” And he turned to carry the toxic bundle down the hall and out the back door to the trashcan. When he came back inside, he stopped in the downstairs bathroom and scrubbed his hands almost raw. Then he sauntered back into the parlor. Only little Ethan wasn’t where he’d been. “Hey, Bubba,” Garrett called. “Where’d you go?” No answer. What did he expect, an announcement? Then he spotted the little pudge. He’d crawled over to where ol’ Blue lay in that pool of sunlight and was sitting close beside him. Ethan grinned, lifted the prize he’d captured in his little hands and prepared to take his very first bite of hound-dog ear. “Ethan, no!” Garrett dived in a way he hadn’t done since high school football and managed to pull a fat little hand away from a drippy little mouth just in time. Ethan just stared at him, big eyes all innocence. Blue lifted his head and laid it down again across the baby’s legs. This was nothing less than amazing to Garrett. This morning’s activities added up to the most that lazy hound had moved in six months! And he was never this friendly. Meanwhile, little hands began smacking down on Blue’s head as if it were a bongo drum. Ethan even tried to sing along. ‘‘ Gawgawgawgawgagaw…” Blue’s head lifted again. He gave Ethan’s chubby cheek a big swipe of dog tongue, then sighed in contentment, closed his droopy eyes and lay his head down in the baby’s lap once more. Garrett swept his hat off with one hand and rumpled his hair with the other. “Well, I’ll be…” Chapter 2 Chelsea Brennan resisted the urge to hug herself against the chill of the room as much as she resisted the urge to grimace at the sickeningly sweet odor of it. The lights were too bright. It ought to be dim in a room like this. Bright lights didn’t belong there. Neither did all the chrome or the shiny white floor tiles. The cold did, though. The cold was at home there. The drawer squealed when he pulled it open. Chelsea grated her teeth at the sound. Beneath a stark white sheet, the body jiggled like gelatin when its bed came to a halt. And then an ash gray hand fell to one side and dangled there. Still. Perfect nails, painted pink. Chelsea didn’t move. Couldn’t move. Her eyes fixed on the small hand. On every sharply delineated bone and a wrist so narrow it made her wince. Not Michele. Not like this. “Are you ready, Ms. Brennan?” She nodded to the white-coated medical examiner, stiffened her spine and lifted her gaze from that limp hand. He pulled the sheet away from a lifeless face. A face as emaciated as the hand, with sharpened cheekbones and hollowed eyes. A face she’d never seen before, and yet so dear…so familiar. Michele. A great suction drew all the air from her lungs, and Chelsea couldn’t seem to inhale any to replace it. Her jaw worked like the gaping gills of a fish when it’s suffocating on dry land. For just an instant, Michele’s features swam and re-formed again. Only this time, it was their mother’s face Chelsea saw. The circles under Michele’s eyes became bruises. Her lips swelled and split. Chelsea tried harder to draw a breath, but the constriction in her chest wouldn’t allow it. Her mouth gaped wider, and she blinked the image of her mother away. Michele. It was Michele lying on the table. Not Mom. Ironic that the resemblance Chelsea saw so clearly now hadn’t been apparent before. In death, they could have been twins. And that’s when the other similarity became blatantly clear. The young Texas Ranger who’d been standing in the doorway, as if he couldn’t bring himself to move further into the stench of death and disinfectant, came forward. He stepped in front of her, blocking the body from her sight, and she breathed at last. “I’m sorry you had to go through this, ma’am.” Sweet, the way he called her “ma’am” all the time. She wondered briefly what vices he kept hidden beneath his compassionate facade. “Is it her?” he asked, fingers twisting the brim of the hat he held in his hands. “Is it your sister?” She couldn’t meet his eyes as she nodded. Instead, she focused on the way his hands worked the hat, and she managed to find her voice again. “She’s so thin,” Chelsea whispered. “Gaunt.” “Drugs will do that to a person, ma’am.” Chelsea’s head rose slowly, and she did meet those clear blue eyes this time. “Drugs didn’t do this to my sister. A man did.” It was the ranger’s turn to avert his eyes. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but she did this to herself. Injected herself with enough heroin to kill a horse.” Chelsea’s knees wobbled just a little, but she snapped them into place again by sheer will. “You’re saying…suicide?” “You did say it had been nearly a year since you’d seen her,” he reminded her. “But I talked with her…just last week. We were making plans. I told her I’d fly down here at the end of the month and…” And she asked if I could come sooner, right away. And there was something in her voice, even though she said she was all right. I should have known. “No,” Chelsea said at last. “No, my sister didn’t kill herself.” “It could have been an accidental overdose, ma’am. Maybe she didn’t realize how much—” “She wasn’t suicidal, Ranger. And she wasn’t stupid, either.” He nodded to the medical examiner, who slid the noisy drawer closed again. Then he touched Chelsea’s elbow as if to ease her out of the room, but she jerked away from the contact. She didn’t want any man laying a finger on her. Not now. Not ever. “You’ll want these.” When she looked his way again, he was holding out a plastic zipper bag with a few items inside. “Her personal effects, ma’am.” She blinked, not reaching for the bag. “Don’t you need to hold on to them… until the case is closed or— “ “The case is closed.” For some reason, her gaze shifted to that drawer again. The one that held her sister on a cold metal table. God, how the hell had the Brennan women come to this? One left. Just one left. “I want to make it perfectly clear,” he said slowly, as if speaking to someone who barely understood the language. He pushed the plastic bag into her hand and turned to start up the stairway, leaving Chelsea no choice but to follow. “There is absolutely no evidence that anyone else stuck that hypodermic into your sister’s belly.” Her steps faltered, but she forced herself to continue up the stairs and outside through heavy metal doors. The rain fell harder now, ricocheting off the blacktopped parking lot and the shiny cars. The ranger’s black umbrella popped open and tilted over her head. No colors here, she thought dully. She’d stepped into a world of black and white. Night, and rain, and heat, and mist hovering low as a result of the other three. She smelled rain and exhaust. Cars passed on the streets of El Paso, their white headlights illuminating the gray building, then leaving it in darkness once more. She didn’t have the strength to argue with the ranger. Not now. Not tonight. Seemed he wasn’t open to her input anyway. For now she only wanted one thing. She turned to him beneath the sheltering dome of the umbrella, saw the rainwater streaming from its edges and the brim of his hat. “Where is the baby?” The ranger blinked, his eyes going wider. “When my sister ran off with that oversize cowboy a year ago, she was pregnant. Last week, when we talked, she told me she had a son. A six-month-old son. Ethan.” Her throat tightened a little when she said the name. But there were still no tears. There hadn’t been tears for Chelsea Brennan in twenty years. “Where is he?” The ranger shook his head. “Ma’am, she was found in an alley outside town. No purse, no ID, and no sign of any baby.” Chelsea’s heart pumped a little faster, a swell of panic rising from the pit of her stomach to engulf it. “We only knew to call you because we found your name and address on a note in her pocket. We haven’t even been able to find out where she was living before she…” He lowered his head, shook it slowly. “I don’t know where she was living, either. She didn’t say, when she called.” Chelsea pushed her hair off her forehead, closed her eyes. “I didn’t even know she was in Texas before that.” “Do you know the name of the man she left New York with?” Chelsea frowned at the mention of the bastard. “I saw him once, from the window of my apartment. A big guy in a cowboy hat. Michele never talked about him. I imagine she thought I’d disapprove.” “Why would she think that?” She lifted her chin, met the younger man’s eyes. “Because I probably would have. My sister had a habit of taking up with losers, Ranger. This one was just the last in a long line of men who treated her like dirt.” “But you don’t know that for sure.” “I’m as sure as I have to be.” For just a moment, he searched her face, then he sighed as if at a loss and started walking again toward her rental car. She kept pace. “I imagine the child is with his father,” he said after a moment. “With his mother’s killer, you mean.” “Ma’am, there’s no—” “Evidence. I know.” Chelsea took the keys from her pocket, but then forgot what it was she was supposed to be doing with them and just stared at them in her open palm. “If he didn’t have anything to do with this,” she said softly, maybe more to herself than to the ranger beside her, “then where is he? Why hasn’t he reported her missing? Why isn’t he the one here identifying her body?” He took the keys from her hand, unlocked the car and opened the door, all the while keeping that damned funereal umbrella over her head. “Could be they parted on bad terms,” he said as he straightened away from the door to let her in. “Could be any number of things besides murder.” “Could be,” she said. “But isn’t.” “Why are you so sure?” Chelsea slid behind the wheel and took the keys he held out to her. “Family tradition,” she said, and closed the door. When she pulled away, the ranger still stood there in the rain, staring after her. She didn’t get far before the nausea hit her. Pulling into a dilapidated convenience store’s parking lot, she managed to make it to a rest room before she lost control. But her heaving stomach couldn’t produce anything anyway. She hadn’t eaten since she’d had the call from the Texas Rangers, asking her if she had a sister, describing her, telling her to come down and identify the body. She collapsed on the dirty tiled floor, her guts tied up in knots. If she could break down in rivers of tears, it might take the edge off. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t cry. Sometimes she thought she and Michele had used up all their tears that night when their father had finally hit their mother one too many times. Years of abuse. Years of the two of them watching it, too young and afraid to do anything to stop it. Though Chelsea had wished a million times she had done something. She wished she’d murdered that bastard in his sleep. She wished she hadn’t always cried when her father hit her because maybe then her mother wouldn’t have always stepped in. Always deflected the bastard’s anger—away from her daughters and onto herself. Chelsea should have killed him. Maybe Mom would still be alive. Maybe Michele wouldn’t have grown up to repeat the same damned cycle. To Chelsea, it seemed as if the men of this world had it in for the Brennan women. Which was why she’d long ago decided never to have anything to do with any of them. She’d die a virgin and of old age, not at an angry man’s hand. And never again, no matter what else she might face, would she let another person take her place in battle. Any battle. Like the battle she was facing right now. Stiffening her resolve, Chelsea gripped the stall door and pulled herself to her feet. Her throat burned, and she reached into her coat pocket for a cough drop, only to encounter the plastic bag that was all she had left of her sister. Clenching her teeth, she pulled it out, opened it and emptied its meager contents into her palm. There was her sister’s high school ring. A pair of cheap metal earrings with gold-colored paint. And a locket on a thin silver chain. Chelsea dropped the other items back into her pocket, letting the bag fall to the floor. She held the locket in trembling hands. It had belonged to her grandmother, Alice. Mamma had given it to Michele after one of their father’s violent episodes. She’d given the matching earrings to Chelsea. She’d done that a lot. Given them gifts. As if she could ease their pain with baubles. Chelsea opened the locket. A red newborn face was framed inside the silver heart. Dark hair sticking up in odd angles, tiny hands clenched into fists, eyes squinting tightly. “Ethan,” she whispered, and she ran the pad of her thumb over that innocent face. “I’ll find you, baby. I promise. I’ll find you.” And then she turned the locket over. There was a tiny compartment in the back. You’d never know it was there unless someone showed it to you, the way their mother had shown it to Michele and Chelsea. And as she pried at it, Chelsea wondered if maybe she’d find a photo of the man who’d murdered her sister and taken her nephew. Maybe she’d have something to go on, some jumping-off point in her search for her sister’s child. Blinking rapidly, Chelsea succeeded in opening the tiny compartment, then gasped as a small, folded slip of paper fell to the floor. She dropped to her knees to retrieve it. Her hands shook so badly she could barely unfold the thing without tearing it, but when she did, she almost sagged in relief at what she saw there. A name, and an address. There was no doubt in Chelsea’s mind that it was the name of the bastard who was responsible for her sister’s death. And no doubt that when she found the scum, she’d find her nephew, as well. Men had all but wiped out the Brennan women. First Mom, and then Michele. Chelsea stood straighter and lifted her chin. Well, it was high time one of the Brennan women fought back. And she was the only one left to do it. She’d taken all she could take. All those years of impotence against her father…well, it was over. She wasn’t a helpless little girl anymore, and the rage she’d stored up back then would be all she’d need to keep her going now. Just long enough to unleash it on a worthless, abusive pig. When she got through with the man whose name Michele had written here, he was going to wish he’d never been born. And if she had any doubts that this man had fathered her sister’s child, they were erased as she reread the name. Garrett Ethan Brand. Someone tapped on the rest room door. “You all right in there, ma’am?” “Fine. Just a minute.” Chelsea took a moment to snap the locket closed again, then fastened the chain around her own neck. She dropped the note into her pocket and turned to open the door. The young woman who’d pointed the rest room out to her lingered outside. “Sorry I took so long,” Chelsea said, stepping out of the rest room into the main part of the little store again. The clerk looked worried as she surveyed Chelsea. Only then did Chelsea wonder about her appearance. Glancing down at herself, she saw the dirt smudged on her skirt and the runs in her nylons. No doubt her hair was wild, too, with the humidity and the rain. “I was just gettin’ worried, is all,” the woman said. “Is everything all right?” “Yes. Fine. Listen, do you have road maps in here?” “Sure,” the clerk said, looking relieved, maybe because the need for a map indicated the wild-looking woman in her store was headed out of town. “Where you going?” As she asked, she went to the counter to thumb through a rack of road maps, her back to Chelsea. “To a ranch called the Texas Brand in the town of Quinn,” Chelsea replied. Silently, she added, to make one Garrett Ethan Brand sorry he ever heard the name Brennan. Chapter 3 Insistent wails broke through the satin bonds of sleep like a randy bull crashing through a fence to get to an in-season heifer. Garrett pulled his pillow over his head and groaned. It was only Ethan’s second night in the house, and Garrett’s second without more than ten straight minutes of shut-eye. But it seemed as if it had been a year. The crying didn’t stop. Ah, hell, no wonder. Poor kid was among strangers, in an unfamiliar place. Was probably missing his mamma. Garrett dragged himself out of bed and slogged into the hallway. He wore shorts and a T-shirt, having learned last night that getting undressed with Ethan only a beller away was as useless as teats on a bore-hog. His bare feet scuffed the braided runner as he headed to the bedroom across from his. Aside from Adam’s and Ben’s, this was the only empty bedroom in the house. It had been his parents’ room. Now it was reserved strictly for guests. Garrett had never had the heart to use his absent brothers’ bedrooms for visitors because he was always half-hoping they’d just show up, home to stay, one of these days. Garrett crossed the hall, opened the door and scuffed inside. Ethan stopped crying the second Garrett leaned over the cradle. Not a single tear dampened the little demon’s cheeks. Not one. All noise and no substance, his crying. His eyes were far from red and swollen. No, they were bright blue, sparkling and wide. They focused on Garrett’s face and twinkled at him. His little arms flailed as if he were trying to fly, and he flashed Garrett a dimply grin. Anyone would think the kid was glad to see him. Garrett’s impatience melted like butter in a hot skillet as he bent to scoop the baby up, and was rewarded by an actual, audible laugh. “Just lonely, aren’t you, Bubba? Yeah, well, I know all about that.” He carried the baby out into the hall and down the stairs, hoping his siblings would appreciate the trouble he was taking to let them sleep in peace. The rocker seemed to be the key. Little Ethan hadn’t conceded to sleep last night until Garrett had rocked him. Hmm, looked like ol’ Blue was one step ahead. The hound stood in front of the rocking chair, head cocked to one side, tail upright, as if awaiting their arrival. Garrett eased himself down, and Blue laid on his feet with a contented sigh. Damn dog seemed to think a baby was exactly what had been lacking in this house. Garrett moved to shift Ethan onto his lap, but the baby’s face nuzzled into the crook between Garrett’s neck and shoulder, his little body cozying closer. Some very odd, kind of warm, fuzzy sensation washed over him at the feel of that tiny, clingy body, so relaxed and trusting in his big arms. He pulled the blanket up over Ethan’s shoulders and patted his little back slowly and rhythmically with a hand that spanned its width. He pushed the rocker into motion with his feet. If someone had told Garrett a week ago that he’d be sitting here cuddling a little baby in the middle of the night—and enjoying it—he’d have had them tested for drugs or alcohol. So small. He’d never held onto anything so small and fragile before. He’d been awfully uncomfortable at first. Garrett was a big man, and people tended to take one look at him and just assume he was rough and dangerous. He went to extremes to be gentle, moving slowly and speaking softly to counteract the impressions made by his size. But he still felt big and clumsy around tiny, fragile things. He ran one hand over Ethan’s downy hair, as dark as Wes’s. That woman who’d left this bundle on the front porch…what had she been thinking? Did she have any idea what she was giving up? At that moment, as that little child clung to him, Garrett knew there wasn’t a more precious treasure in the whole world than the one in his arms right now. And more love had never come in a smaller package. ‘Cause somewhere between yesterday and the moment Garrett had leaned over that crib tonight, this baby seemed to have decided to love him. He practically bubbled over every time Garrett went anywhere near him. “Dabababa,” Ethan sang, his voice soft and sleepy as he cuddled closer. Garrett rubbed circles on Ethan’s back and inhaled sweet baby smells as he rocked. “You’re just a little bird, aren’t you, Bubba? All the time singing.” Ethan made a motor noise with his lips that resulted in Garrett’s T-shirt getting wet. “Yeah,” Garrett said softly, rocking and patting in time. “Your mamma must have known what she was doing, huh? I got a feeling she wouldn’t have left you without some pretty big reasons.” Ethan wiggled himself into a more comfortable position, snuggling close again as one tiny hand gripped a fold in Garrett’s T-shirt. “She’s a smart lady, your mamma,” Garrett went on, his voice just a little above a whisper. “She had to know I’d realize you weren’t my flesh and blood. But she also must’ve known how it would look to the kids if I turned you away. What a bad example it would’ve set.” Garrett didn’t know who the woman might be. He knew beyond a doubt he hadn’t fathered the child. Though knowing it wasn’t as pleasant a feeling as it ought to be. Hell, being a daddy to something this cuddly wouldn’t be much of a chore. Garrett wished to God he knew who the mother was, why she’d brought Ethan here. Only one thing was obvious. Whoever she was, she hadn’t left the child at just any old ranch house. She hadn’t chosen at random. Her note called Garrett by name. Hell, it went so far as to claim the child was named for him. So this action she’d taken had to have been well thought out, planned. She’d deliberately left her child in Garrett’s care. He was having serious second thoughts about turning Ethan over to Social Services come Tuesday morning. After all, he was the town sheriff. There was no reason he couldn’t make a few inquiries on his own, try to find the woman himself. If she’d wanted Ethan in the system, she’d have taken him there, wouldn’t she? And suppose she came back for her baby in a week, or a month? Lord knows, once kids go into foster care, it’s sheer hell for a parent to get them back. All that red tape could be avoided if Garrett could just keep little Ethan here with him. Just for a short while. Just to give the woman a chance. A little palm patted Garrett’s face. Oh, yeah, he was changing his mind, all right. Hell, he was smitten by the little mite already, and he’d only had him a couple of days. What must it have done to Ethan’s mamma to leave him alone on that porch? Torn her insides out, Garrett figured. But she’d done it, and in doing it, she’d put her trust in him. No way was Garrett going to let her down. He lowered his head to the side, so his cheek brushed Ethan’s silky hair. “Don’t you worry, little Bubba. I’m gonna make things right for you.” The baby heaved a deep sigh, and Garrett closed his eyes. It was still dark outside when he heard a vehicle and felt the touch of headlights on his eyelids. He’d fallen asleep! Sitting right here in the rocker, holding that baby! Of all the idiotic things to do. What if he’d dropped Ethan on his head? But his arms were still firmly anchored around the little body, as if they’d been on guard duty even as he’d slept. He squinted at the antique pendulum clock that sat on the mantel. Three a.m. He’d been asleep almost three hours! And who the hell was pulling into the driveway at this time of night? Could be an emergency in town, maybe. He was the sheriff. But wouldn’t someone have called instead of driving clear out here? Garrett got up real slow, and turned to lay Ethan on the couch. Then he pulled the nearest armchair up beside it, back first, so there was no way the baby could roll onto the floor. He was just tucking a blanket over the sleeping angel when he heard pounding on the front door. Not knocking. Pounding. His stomach twisted a little as he thought about his gun, clear out of reach upstairs, and he tried to recall if he’d arrested any particularly ornery characters lately. But hell, aside from the occasional drunk and disorderly boys over at La Cucaracha, he rarely arrested anyone. Quinn was a quiet little town. Not much happened there. Garrett hustled through the dining room, casting one last glance over his shoulder at Ethan as he went. Still asleep despite the racket at the door. Good. He paused in the kitchen only long enough to flick on the outdoor light so he could get a look at the rude S.O.B. who was trying to knock the door off its hinges. He parted the curtain and peered out. Hostile eyes looked back at him. Hostile…and then some. The creature who stared back at him seemed, in that first instant, to be nothing but eyes. Huge, round, and wild. The impact when those eyes met his sent him two full steps backward before he’d even been aware of moving. Like he’d been kicked hard in the chest. Those eyes…they were hurting. Hurting like he’d never seen anyone hurt before, and it looked to him as if they intended to hurt back. Garrett blinked and gave his head a shake. Hell, he’d best get a grip and look again. There had been more there than a pair of stricken eyes. He leaned forward again, this time flicking the lock and twisting the knob. No use with the locks. It was a woman, even if she was all eyes. And he could handle a woman, no matter how crazed. The door opened. She shouldered inside before he stepped out of the way, then stood toe-to-toe with him. “Are you Garrett Ethan Brand?” Her voice was like cherry-tree bark—stringy and coarse. She had burnished bronze hair that seemed as riled up as she was. Her clothes were dirty and her stockings full of runs. Mud clung to her high-heeled shoes. She was a mess. He figured she must have had an accident or something. But unless she’d lost a limb—which she obviously hadn’t—he couldn’t see any explanation for the pain and rage in her eyes. “Yeah, I’m Garrett,” he told her. “Why don’t you sit down and I’ll-” He reeled backward at the impact of her fist—not her hand, her fist—connecting with his left cheekbone and snapping his head sideways so hard and fast he thought he’d probably need a neck brace. “Damn, woman! What the hell was that—hold on a minute!” He caught her fist in his hands before she could land another blow. So she kicked him in the shins with those muddy, pointy-toed shoes of hers. He yelped in agony. Damned if he wanted to hurt any woman, but this one was pushing even his legendary patience. He dropped her hands just long enough to wrap his arms tight around her middle, pinning her arms to her sides. At the same instant, he pressed her up against the door and pushed his body tight to her considerably smaller one. So tight she couldn’t swing those deadly feet again. But even as he did it, he took great pains not to hurt her. She was so small he got the feeling she’d break easily. And then he just stood there, his body plastered to hers, panting from the struggle and the surprise and, mostly to be honest, the pain. And he wondered what the hell to do next. Lord, her heart hammered like a scared jackrabbit’s hind feet. Her lungs moved in and out too rapidly. She had cheeks as pink as a tea rose and eyes that damn near put him on his knees just with the force of the emotions he saw roiling in them as he stared down at her from a distance of well over a foot. He caught his breath in short order, though she still breathed as if she’d just run a mile uphill. “You want to tell me why you’re trying to cripple me now, ma’am, or on the way to jail?” Her eyes narrowed and…they were green. Deep, forest green. Like pine needles in the sunlight. He’d never seen eyes like those. “Where is he?” Garrett blinked twice. “Where is who?” “You know damn well who. Where is he?” A bitter dread settled in the pit of his stomach. God wouldn’t be so cruel, would he? This crazy woman couldn’t possibly be little Ethan’s mamma…could she? He cleared his throat, trying to figure out a decent reason to lie to her, when Ethan made up his own mind. He let out a yelp. And an outright miracle happened. That wildcat in Garrett’s arms went limp as a noodle. The fury left her eyes, and instead they softened, melted. A look of utter longing and bittersweet relief took over, and the tension left her so fast it felt as if her bones had turned to water. He wasn’t sure she’d still be standing on her feet if he wasn’t holding her. “Ethan?” she whispered. “Yes, ma’am, that’s Ethan. But I’ll tell you, I’m not inclined to let anyone as violent as you within a hundred miles of him.” Her eyes flashed up at him, anger flickering to life once more. Tempered now, though. “Are, uh, are you his mamma?” Soft auburn brows drew together. “You know perfectly well where his mother is, mister.” “No, ma’am, I surely don’t.” “Yes, cowboy,” she said, mocking his drawl and saying “cowboy” as if it were a cuss word. “You surely do.” Her voice lowered until it became little more than a harsh, tortured whisper. “She’s lying in a morgue in El Paso. And you put her there, you bastard.” She was shaking—shaking—like a road sign in a killing wind. Vibrating with the force of whatever emotions roiled inside her right now. The kitchen light flashed on, and Wes appeared at Garrett’s side. His open hand might look harmless to a stranger, but Garrett saw the way his fingers twitched just a little. He’d snatch that bowie from his boot at the drop of a hat. “What’s going on, Garrett?” He didn’t answer. His gaze remained fixed on the wild-eyed creature whose soul was crying, even if her eyes were not. “Ethan’s mamma is dead?” She didn’t reply, only glared at him. He heard Jessi’s soft gasp behind him and realized she’d come into the kitchen, too. And probably Elliot, as well. The scent of baby powder told him one of them was carrying Ethan. That and the way the woman trapped between his chest and the door suddenly stared at a point beyond him. “Answer me. Is she dead?” A single nod. “Are you sure?” Her eyes finally came back to his. “I just came from identifying my sister’s body, you murdering slug. You’re damned right I’m sure.” Wes stiffened, closed his eyes, shook his head. Elliot snorted, coming forward to stand at Garrett’s other side. “Lady, you don’t know my brother at all if you think he could hurt a woman.” His words had no impact on her. She merely lifted her chin and continued staring at Garrett. “I came for my nephew. Give him to me and I’ll leave.” “Well, now, I’m real sorry, ma’am, but I can’t do that.” “I’ll kill you myself before I’ll let you keep him.” And Garrett believed she meant every word of it. “You’ll have to go through me,” Wes told her, his eyes going cold. Wes’s eyes, when they went cold like that, could make a rattler tremble. Two black marbles without a hint of feeling. “And going through me won’t be an easy job, lady.” “Damn straight it won’t,” Elliot agreed. “And when you finish with Wes, you’ll have to get by me.” “And then me,’’ Jessi said. Nothing fazed the woman. She didn’t even blink. “If that’s the way you want it.” She faced Garrett again. “Let go of me, Brand. I’ll leave, but when I come back it will be with the law.” “No need to leave for that, ma’am. I happen to be the law. ‘Round here, leastwise.” For the first time, he saw fear tinge her eyes. She glanced down at his arms, imprisoning her, and it seemed to Garrett she was suddenly afraid of him. He eased his hold on her that very second. Let her go completely, and even stepped back away from her. It stunned him, that fear. Made him feel kind of queasy. He didn’t like scaring people. Especially women or kids. Though he usually tried to be less intimidating because of his size, he knew only too well it wasn’t always enough. Hell, nothing made Garrett more miserable than people being afraid of him. Especially her. She was very small, he realized. Smaller than Jessi, even. She’d been through some kind of hell tonight, and he figured she was probably telling the truth about having just identified her sister’s body in EI Paso. She certainly looked like someone who’d just lost a sister. And if she truly thought him responsible…well, hell, he’d have been just as angry in her shoes. She didn’t lash out at him again. Only stood there, looking like she’d fall down in a few more minutes. Looking like the stress was tearing her nerves right to shreds. Garrett turned around and took little Ethan from Jessi’s arms, though she protested. Ethan chirped and grinned and blew spit bubbles. He latched onto one of Garrett’s fingers and held tight. Garrett turned back to the woman, who stood near the front door. “Come on into the parlor,” he said to her, and he tried harder than he ever had to make his deep voice sound soft and gentle. “Sit down and hold your nephew for a while. We’ll talk this out.” She blinked, licked her lips. “I just want to take him and go.” “I understand that. But you have to understand my position here. I’m the sheriff, ma’am. A woman left her child in my care. I can’t just hand him over to the first stranger who comes along and claims him, now can I?” She eyed him so skeptically he squirmed inside. “I’ll check out your story,” he went on. It was more than her smallness that made her seem as fragile as bone china right now. And he felt big and awkward beside her. “If you are who you say you are, and Ethan really is your nephew, I’ll let you take him. But, ma’am, even if I were sure right this minute, I wouldn’t let you out of here now. You’re in no shape to be driving tonight. Especially not with a baby in the car.” He had her there. She knew it. He saw the concession in her eyes. “I’m not leaving here without him.” “Then you’re gonna have to stay a spell.” She looked at the baby he held and she put her arms out. Little Ethan looked back at her and smiled. Her white hands trembled as she took a step forward. Then she dropped like a sack of potatoes right at Garrett’s feet. Garrett pushed little Ethan into the nearest set of arms, which turned out to be Wes’s, and bent down to scoop the woman up off the floor. As he turned to carry her through the house and upstairs, he noticed that she smelled like violets. Chapter 4 Chelsea awoke to hot sunlight burning over her eyelids and face, cool, crisp sheets against her skin, and the smell of coffee. Good, strong coffee. The smell, she discovered after blinking the sleep haze from her eyes, originated from the carafe that sat on the round table beside the bed. A pink cloth with lacy white edging covered the table and draped halfway to the floor, leaving only the bottom portion of the broad, carved, totem pole-like pedestal visible. Chelsea wanted to reach for that coffee. And for the plate of the steaming, fragrant, omelet-type concoction beside it. But she couldn’t summon the energy to move. “Well, the beast lives,” a feminine voice announced. Chelsea jerked her gaze to where the young woman she remembered from last night stood near the window. The curtains were as pink as the tablecloth. In fact, so were the sheets. Pale pink fabric with lilac blossoms lined the two overstuffed chairs in the room, and the wallpaper matched. It was very loud, very flowery and very pink. A white vanity with more filigree trim than substance stood in one corner. It was laden with pretty bottles and jars of every size, shape and color. “Looks like the inside of Jeannie’s bottle, doesn’t it?” The woman let the curtains fall closed. “My brothers think all the frilly stuff makes up for being the only female in a houseful of men. I let them indulge me.” She was young. Early twenties, Chelsea guessed. Her pixie-short hair gleamed a reddish brown like the coat of a deer. And those huge brown eyes of hers reinforced the image of a doe. She was taller than Chelsea, curvier, too. “So, do I pass inspection, Your Majesty?” Chelsea cleared her throat, trying to work up enough energy to put the spoiled brat in her place. All she managed was, “What do you want?” “I don’t want anything, least of all to wait on some lunatic in my own house. I wouldn’t be in here at all if Garrett hadn’t insisted I stay with you until you came around. He said he was afraid you’d be scared waking up in a strange place.” She said the last bit in a whiny, mocking tone, and Chelsea wished she could slap her. “So I suggested my room. At least here I can keep an eye on you.” “I wouldn’t be here if I had a choice about it.” “You wouldn’t be here if I had a choice about it either, lady.” Chelsea closed her eyes at the look of hostility in the pretty face. “You might as well eat.” The girl pushed herself away from the wall she’d been leaning on and came to the bed to hand the tray of food to Chelsea. “Thanks,” Chelsea said. “Don’t thank me. I wouldn’t cook for you if you were starving. Garrett brought this up.” Chelsea looked up from the plate of food on her lap to the glittering brown eyes. “Look, I don’t have a problem with you. It’s your brother—” “You have a problem with one Brand, lady, you have a problem with all of them.” “He might have killed my sister.” And why the hell was she suddenly qualifying her accusations with a “might have?” Last night, she’d been so sure. Chelsea sat up straighter, suddenly losing interest in the food. “You can’t expect me to just— “ “He didn’t even know your sister! And you don’t know Garrett. Of all my brothers, he’s the most gentle, the sweetest, the kindest, the—” She broke off, turning away fast and blinking tears from her eyes. As if she didn’t want Chelsea to see her crying. “Garrett wouldn’t hurt a fly. You can ask anyone who knows him. The boys in town, they have a joke. They call him the gentle giant.” She turned again, with one angry swipe at her eyes. “But I’m not gentle. And neither is Wes. And I’ll tell you right now, we’re not gonna stand by and let you hurt Garrett this way. You can’t go around accusing him of murder. You do and I’ll—” “That’s enough, Jessi.” The command was spoken softly, but in a voice so big it didn’t seem likely anyone would disobey. The man Chelsea had believed to be a cold-blooded killer stood in the doorway, looking at his little sister with a frown, but adoringly all the same. “But, Garrett—” “No buts. Go on, now. Wes needs your help in the barn. That new calf got himself tangled in some wire and cut his hind leg up. He needs tending.” “Wes can handle a cut calf.” “Wes isn’t the Brand one semester away from a degree in veterinary medicine, Jes. You are. Now get out there and see to the calf before he gets infected or something.” The girl—Jessi—blinked twice, and seemed to forget all about Chelsea. With budding concern in her eyes, she yanked open a closet door and snatched out a brown leather satchel. Then she headed out of the room and Chelsea heard her feet taking the stairs at a trot a second later. Garrett Brand came farther into the room, but he left the door open. He really was big. Not just tall, but as broad shouldered as a lumberjack. He had bodybuilder arms that bore the coppery kiss of the sun beneath a fine mist of dark hair. His eyes were as deeply brown as his sister’s. Soft eyes, bottomless and kind. Deceptively so. “We ought to talk,” he said in that slow, easy way of his. He moved slowly, too, as if giving her time to object with every step he took. When she didn’t, he eased his big frame into one of Jessi’s pink-and-lilac chairs, and Chelsea wondered if she were about to witness a scene from Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Nope, the fragile-looking chair legs held. It was only when those deep brown eyes moved slowly down her sheet-draped body and then darkened that Chelsea became suddenly, acutely interested in what the hell she was wearing. She lifted the sheet, peeked down and gasped. “I’m naked under here,” she blurted, mainly because she was so surprised. Garrett shifted in the chair, his face reddening all the way to his ears. “Well, I asked Jessi to get you out of your clothes last night. I mean…you were pretty well soaked from the rain and all, and…” She scowled at him when he ran out of words. “You want me to leave so you can get dressed?” “In what? I don’t see any of my things in here.” “Well, you must have luggage in your car, right? I can have Elliot go out and—” “Just say what you have to say and get it over with, will you?” He nodded fast, keeping his eyes carefully lowered, though whenever they did come up, they focused on certain strategic bits of the sheet and she wondered how much he could see through it. “All right,” he said. “For starters, ma’am, I’m not sure what—” he frowned, meeting her eyes “—what’s your name?” “My name?” “I can’t talk to you without even knowing your name. It feels too odd.” She closed her eyes, sighed. “Chelsea Brennan.” His lips curled upward just slightly at the corners. “I like it.” “I’m so glad it meets with your approval,” she snapped, then saw a wounded look come and go in his eyes and almost regretted her words. “I didn’t hurt your sister, Chelsea Brennan,” he said, and there was so much sincerity in his deep, steady voice that it made her wonder. “But I’d like to help you find out who did…if you’ll let me.” Nothing he could have said would have shocked her more. Denials, she expected. Threats, even. But an offer of help? What was this? A trick? “Why would you want to help me? You don’t even know me.” “That’s true, I don’t. But I know Ethan.” He licked his lips as if he were nervous or something, dipped his head. “It might sound foolish to you, Chelsea, but I made that little fella a promise. I told him I’d make things right for him again, and that’s what I intend to do.” She studied him, scanning the little worry lines—or were they laugh lines?—at the corners of his brown eyes. Telling herself that just because his appearance and demeanor were so damned gentle and approachable didn’t mean that’s the way he truly was. Inside. Where it counted. Hell, her father hadn’t looked like the monster he was, either. “Why should I believe you? How do I know this isn’t just an act? That you aren’t just lying to throw me off track?” “Why shouldn’t you believe me?” “You want me to list the reasons?” He nodded, watching her with those soft eyes of his, “Fine. I will, then. A year ago, my sister, Michele, got herself pregnant by the lowlife she’d been dating. She didn’t tell me his name, but I saw him once from a distance. He was big…like you. And he wore a hat—” she pointed at the black hat he’d perched on the arm of the chair “—like that.” He glanced down at his hat with a frown, then picked it up. His lips pursed in thought as he turned the brim slowly in his big hands and ran his fingers around the edge and then through the dip in the hat’s center in what seemed uncomfortably like a caress. “Most of the men in Texas wear hats like this one,” he replied, calm and quiet. “And I imagine a lot of them are big.’’ He stroked the black felt over and over. Chelsea’s stomach tightened and twisted, and she jerked her gaze away from those slow-moving hands. “A week ago, Michele called me. She told me she had a son, Ethan, and she asked me to come down here right away to see him.” Chelsea clenched her jaw, closing her eyes before rushing on. “If only I had, she might still be alive. But I knew I couldn’t take time off work on such short notice. I promised to fly down in a couple of weeks, but…” “There was no way you could have known,” he said. But she should have known. There’d been something in Michele’s voice, something she should have picked up on. But she hadn’t. Not until it had been too late. She’d live with that for the rest of her life. “Then, yesterday, I got a call from the Texas Rangers, telling me they had a body they wanted me to look at.” “And it was her,” Garrett finished softly. Chelsea nodded. “Someone left her for dead, only she wasn’t quite. But she didn’t live long enough to make it to the hospital.” It surprised her when a warm hand slid over her cold one on the bed. And she stared at it for a long moment. A big, powerful hand, only it wasn’t hurting. It wasn’t controlling or cruel. She pushed her brows together at the unexpectedness of that. And then the hand moved away, and Garrett cleared his throat. “They gave me her things,” Chelsea went on. “There was a locket with Ethan’s picture. Your name and address were in a compartment in the back.” “So you assumed I was the killer. And Ethan’s daddy.” Garrett shook his head. “She named him after you.” “And I still haven’t figured out why, or how she even knew me, or who she even was.” He shook his head slowly, such sincere regret in his eyes that he had her almost believing him. Chelsea sat up, clutching the pink sheet to her chest. She pointed at the floor, where someone had slung her mud-spattered purse. “Hand me my bag, would you?” Garrett nodded and retrieved the bag for her, returning to his seat with those slow, careful movements of his. Chelsea dug out her billfold and opened it to the photo of her sister. She handed the picture to the big man at the bedside. “This is Michele, Ethan’s mother.” Garrett narrowed his eyes as he studied the snapshot. Then they widened in recognition, and Chelsea knew, whether he’d admit it or not, that he’d known Michele. “I remember her,” he said slowly. “You do?” She hadn’t expected him to admit it. He nodded. “It was last fall. I saw her out on the River Road, middle of nowhere, alone, with a flat tire on her beat-up old car.” “And?” “Well, I stopped and changed it for her, of course.” He looked at her as if she should have known that much. “She seemed jittery, as I recall. Had a scared-rabbit look to her that worried me. I invited her back here for supper that night, and she came. Adam and Ben were here then, too, so it was a houseful.” He shook his head, then his brows drew together again. “Did she spend the night with you?” Chelsea knew her meaning was clear in her tone. His head came up and he gave her a sharp look. “We invited her to stay over in the guest room. She refused. Said she had to be on her way. All told, she didn’t spend more than two or three hours under this roof.” “It only takes a few minutes to get a woman pregnant,” Chelsea said. Garrett sighed hard. “She was already pregnant. Ma’am, do you think your sister was stupid?” She blinked and sat up in the bed, holding the sheet to her chest. “No. Michele was irresponsible and flighty and drawn to bad men, but she wasn’t stupid.” He nodded, handing the photo back to Chelsea. “You said you heard from her for the first time in over a year, just before she was killed. Now, why do you think she called you then, after all that time?” Chelsea drew a breath, braced her shoulders, taking full blame, which she deserved. “She knew…I think she was reaching out to me because she needed help.” “You think she knew this S.O.B. was after her.” Closing her eyes tight, Chelsea nodded. “If it were you,” Garrett said, his voice deep and smooth, “and you had your own little baby boy in your arms and a man trying to kill you and no one to turn to, what would you do, Chelsea?” Facing him without flinching, she said, “I’d cut the bastard’s heart out before he could do it to me.” Garrett blinked, maybe in surprise. It had to be surprise in his eyes the way he stared at her for a full minute before he finally nodded and spoke again. “I do believe you would,” he said slowly, his gaze brushing her face from forehead to chin before focusing on her eyes again. “Fair enough, then. But what about Michele? Is that what she would have done?” Chelsea’s lips trembled as she imagined Michele’s fear and desperation. She stared down at her sister’s image, then closed her eyes. “She never fought back, never in her life. When things got tough for Michele, she’d run. She’d run right back home to me, and I’d take her in, find her a job, bail her out, whatever she needed. Until the next slug came along with a mouthful of promises. Then she’d take off again.” “So you think if she were scared this time, if she knew someone were trying to kill her, she would’ve run?” Chelsea nodded. “And what about the baby, Chelsea? It’s hard to run for your life with a baby.” “She’d never have taken Ethan with her if she’d known she was in danger,” Chelsea said quickly. “She’d never risk him that way. I know my sister. She’d have found a safe place to hide him and then she’d have run as far and as fast as she could.” She heard his sigh, his relieved sigh, and opened her eyes again to see him nodding in understanding. He held her gaze. “Don’t you see it, Chelsea? That’s exactly what she did. We found little Ethan on our front porch day before yesterday. She left him here so he’d be safe.” He must have seen the doubt in her eyes, because he went on. “I live right here on the Texas Brand. Have all my life,” he said. “I run the ranch and I show up in a little bitty office in town every weekday with a star pinned to my shirt. Everybody in Quinn knows just about every move I make. I promise, I haven’t had time to be terrorizing any woman. I haven’t been to New York in years, either, and I can probably prove that if you’ll just tell me the date this boyfriend of your sister’s was there.” He meant it. She could tell he meant it, and her doubts about his guilt were stronger than ever. “My sister ran away with that cowboy last year on April first,” she said. “Bitter irony, isn’t it?” “April Fools’ Day,” Garrett observed. “Okay. I’ll see if I can find some proof of my whereabouts that day for you.” She studied him, wondering why, if he really was innocent, he wasn’t throwing her out on her backside. She’d stormed into his house in the middle of the night, accused him of murder and physically attacked him. He, in turn, had cooked her breakfast. She looked down again at the omelet. “It’s getting cold,” he told her. “Doesn’t matter. I’m not hungry anyway.” “When’s the last time you had a meal, Chelsea Brennan?” Every time she heard her name spoken in those slow, drawling tones, she felt a chill run up her spine. She tried to remember when her last meal had been, found she couldn’t, then shrugged. “You’ll be skin and bone if you don’t eat soon.” His words made her remember the way Michele had looked in the morgue, and she felt cold inside. “Just a little,” he urged. “I didn’t put too much spice in ‘em. If you want, though, I can run downstairs for the hot sauce.” She almost smiled. Hot sauce on eggs? She forced herself to take a bite of the omelet, which melted on her tongue like butter. Garrett got up and poured coffee from the carafe, filling a fat clay mug with the steaming brew. He leaned close to hand it to her, and she caught his scent. It made her want to sniff more of it. It scared her. “I want my clothes,” she said, feeling uneasy and suddenly wishing this man were far away from her. “I want to take Ethan and go back to New York this morning.” Garrett lowered his head. He looked truly sorry. “No. Not yet.” “What do you mean, not yet?” “I’m sorry. No, listen, I mean it. I am sorry. But I can’t just let you take off with Bubba until I know—” “Bubba?” “Er, Ethan. Look, you’re stuck here for today. There’s no two ways about that, so you may as well get used to the idea.” Her fork dropped onto the plate and she glared at him. “You can’t keep me here against my will!” “Sure I can. I’m the sheriff. And last night, you assaulted me. I can toss you in jail and I will, Chelsea Brennan, if you try to take Bu—Ethan out of this house today.” “You son of a-” “You insult my mamma, Chelsea, and you’re gonna regret it.” She blinked and defiantly stuck out her chin. “What are you going to do, Sheriff Brand? You going to kill me the way you did my sister?” He closed his eyes, shook his head slowly from side to side. “Damn. I give up.” He turned and left the room, closing the door behind him. She knew it had been a cheap shot. Because she really didn’t have a reason in the world to suspect that big man of murder. Garrett stood in the hallway outside Jessi’s room and took a long, deep breath. It had been a long time since anyone had tested his temper as sorely as that hellcat, Chelsea Brennan, was doing. Worse than that, she was beautiful. All of her. And there hadn’t been much hidden with nothing over her but that thin pink sheet of Jessi’s. It had clung to her. There’d been a little indentation over her belly button, and her breasts might as well have been exposed. They were small and firm and…. He clamped his jaw against the tide of reaction that tried, once again, to sweep him away, tried not to think about the soft, pale color of her skin, or the satin texture of her neck and shoulders, or those pine-tree green eyes. He tried not to feel that small, china-doll hand, cool and trembling underneath his big callused one. He couldn’t afford to have tender feelings for her. Hell, she’d come here to take little Bubba away to Lord only knew what kind of life! She was accusing Garrett of murder, to boot. Easy enough to solve the latter problem. The former one bothered him, though. If she turned out to be Ethan’s aunt after all, then he’d have no right to keep that boy here. Garrett sneaked into the guest bedroom where Ethan’s cradle was, and saw that the little pudge had decided to wake up at last. He was playing with his toes and drooling. A crooked smile tugged at Garrett’s mouth, and he went to the cradle. “Morning, Bubba.” “Ga!” He bent to pick up the baby, then thought better of it and removed the diaper first. Then the little T-shirt. He laid a fresh diaper under Ethan, but didn’t tape it up. “You lie there and kick for a minute while I run a baby-size bath for you.” Ethan’s huge smile and gurgles of joy followed Garrett into the bathroom. “Never did know a fella who enjoyed being buck naked the way you do, Bubba.” He turned on the water. Chelsea heard splashing, and the enthusiastic coos and chirps that went with it. Ethan! God, she’d come so far, waited so long to finally see him. That big lug of a sheriff might be able to keep her from taking him home, for the moment at least, but he couldn’t keep her from seeing him. She got out of the pink bed, holding the sheet around her in case anyone barged in, and went to the closet. She found a satin robe. Pink, of course, and a bit too long for her, but she belted it around her waist anyway, tying the sash nice and tight. Then she left the bedroom, barefoot, and followed the sounds into the big bedroom down the hall. A cradle stood empty beside a made-up bed with a wagon-wheel headboard. And farther inside, another door stood open. Chelsea moved toward it, then stood stock-still just beyond the doorway, staring in utter shock at what she saw. The fat, laughing baby slapping his hands against the water in the tub so that sprays of droplets exploded all over the place. And the big man kneeling on the floor beside the tub, one hand firmly around the baby for support, while the other ran a washcloth over a round little belly. Garrett had stripped off his T-shirt. Not in time, by the looks of it. It lay on the floor in a wet ball. Water dripped from a brick-wall chest and bodybuilder arms, and from his hair. Its thick, dark waves hung in straggles, some clinging to his face. And he was laughing as much as the baby. A deep, rich sound that made her shiver. Ethan. Her little Ethan. He was staring up at Garrett Brand with adoration oozing from his deep blue eyes. Damned if the big cowboy wasn’t looking back at the baby with something very similar shining from his brown ones. Garrett turned, but never released his hold on Ethan. He’d tell her to get out, she guessed. He’d tell her to go back to the bedroom and stay there until further notice. He’d tell her– “You mind handin’ me that towel over there, Chelsea? I think I’m wetter than Bubba.” She blinked, gave her head a shake, then followed his gaze to the stack of towels on the washstand. She reached for one, handed it to him. “Thanks.” One-handed, he wiped his face and chest dry, then scooped the baby out of the tub and wrapped him up in another big, fluffy towel. The way he held Ethan, the way he cuddled him close…“Do me a favor and take it from here, Chelsea? I need some dry clothes, and then I ought to head out to check on that calf.” Her eyes burned and her throat closed too tightly for words to emerge as Garrett gently placed her sister’s child into her arms. “All his things are in that bag next to the cradle. You need anything, just step out onto the front porch and holler.” She nodded, but mutely. She couldn’t take her eyes from the baby. Garrett turned and walked away, leaving her alone with Ethan. She came as close to crying as she had since her mother died. No tears spilled over, but she felt them burning her eyes. Felt that choking sensation, the spasms in her chest. “Ethan,” she murmured, and she hugged him close, felt his little fingers twisting and tugging at her hair, smelled him. The little angel. The only family she had left. The best thing Michele had ever done in her short, misery-ridden life. God, how Michele must have loved this baby! “I’ll take care of him,” she whispered, praying somehow her sister could hear her and finally be at peace. She carried the baby back into his room, walked to the wide, arching window and parted the curtains to stare out at the red-orange sky. “It’s all right now, Michele. I’ll take care of him, I swear I will. I’ll give him…I’ll give him the things we didn’t have.” Her voice trembled as she spoke, but she went on, feeling she needed to. She had to reassure her sister as well as herself. She had to speak the promise aloud to make it real, make it solid and attainable. “He’ll have a house, Michele. With a yard and room to grow. And…and he’ll have a family. I’ll love him so much…you’ll see. And I’ll never, ever hit him, Michele. No one will, I promise you that. He won’t have to hide his bruises before he goes off to school, the way we did. I swear it. I’ll protect him with my life. His grandfather will never even know he exists. And if his father tries to take him from me, Michele, I’ll fight him to the death. I will. He’s not going to grow up to be like them. He’ll be…he’ll be our son, Michele. Yours and mine. I’ll tell him about you. I’ll make sure he never forgets his mother.” Ethan’s hand tugged at Chelsea’s hair, and she smiled and hugged him again. Jessi wiped the single tear from her cheek and tiptoed quietly back down the hall to her own room. Maybe…maybe she’d been a little hard on that strange city woman. She tried to imagine what her reaction would have been if their situations were reversed. If it had been one of her own precious brothers who’d been killed, and if she’d been convinced of who’d done it. Hell, she’d have been far rougher on the suspect than Chelsea Brennan had been on Garrett. She’d have probably shot first and asked questions later. And that would have been a crying shame, because Jessi never missed what she shot at. Two things were for sure. Chelsea had loved her sister. And she loved little Ethan. And those were two things Jessi could fully understand. That other stuff she’d overheard Chelsea talking about…about never hitting, and about hiding bruises…that stuff worried her. She decided to repeat the entire, one-sided conversation to Garrett just as soon as he came back inside. Meanwhile, it was her turn to clean up the breakfast dishes. Chapter 5 Garrett was more than a little put out to find that none of his normally well-mannered siblings had bothered to bring Chelsea Brennan’s luggage in from her car. It was pushing nine a.m. by the time he’d finished checking on the wounded calf, returned it to its mamma and ridden the fence lines, checking on the cattle as he did every morning and again every night. The two hours it took to cover the pastures did him as much good as it did the cattle, he thought. It relaxed him. This morning, he’d only found one minor problem. Some brush had blown into the wire, shorting out the electric fence and leaving a portion vulnerable. Fortunately, the cows hadn’t figured it out yet. Fat, happy Herefords stood around chewing grass and eyeing him while he cut the brush away and tested the fence. When he and Duke galloped toward the barns again, Garrett saw Chelsea. She sat in the porch swing, Bubba in her arms. And she was still wearing Jessi’s pink robe. The picture she made there struck him hard for some reason, and he drew Duke to a stop and just sat there, not quite sure why or what to do next. Duke needed some oats and a good rundown. But his unwilling houseguest was obviously being neglected. Good manners prevailed, as they generally did with Garrett. He touched his heels to Duke’s flanks and turned the horse toward the house. Stopping at the front porch, he slid easily to the ground and took a second to loop the reins around the hitching rail even though it was unnecessary. Duke wouldn’t stray. In truth, he needed a minute to shake off the odd feeling the sight of her and Ethan sitting there in that porch swing–almost as if they were waiting for him–had caused in his gut. Like indigestion, only worse. He glanced around, looking everywhere but at her. Wes crouched near the gate to the horse pasture, tinkering with that loose hinge. Elliot held the thing in place for him as he worked. Both, though, were watching Garrett and Chelsea. Garrett saw the sneaky glances, the narrowed eyes. His brothers didn’t like Miss Chelsea Brennan very much, he deduced. And they trusted her even less. “So, how’s the calf?” she asked Garrett brought his head around fast. Was that an attempt at civil conversation? Or was she just gearing up to make some nasty remark? “Out in the pasture with his mamma. He’ll be fine.” “Barbed wire is cruel,” she observed, and though her voice was deep and soft, he heard the acid in her tone. “It ought to be illegal.” Garrett narrowed his eyes at her and tried not to notice the swell of her breasts peeking out at him from where the robe’s neckline took a swan dive. “We’ve replaced it with smooth wire for that very reason. The piece that calf found was left over from days gone by. Grass had grown over it, so we must have missed it when we were clearing out the old fences.” And just why the hell was he explaining himself to her? “Electric shock therapy for cows,” she decreed with all the pomposity of a haughty despot, “is just as bad.’’ “I have to disagree with you there, ma’am. The voltage is real low, and once they get bit on the nose, they tend to stay away from it.” She sniffed and looked away from him. “It’s better than letting them wander off and get lost,” Garrett persisted. “Even a city girl ought to have sense enough to see that much.” She slanted him a glance that stung worse than any electric fence he’d ever accidentally grabbed hold of. Garrett shifted his stance, regretting his hostile response. If he wanted to help Bubba, he couldn’t go making this woman his enemy. He had to try to cozy up to her, keep her here until he figured out what to do. Okay, time to start over again. He cleared his throat. “I was thinking–” “Did it hurt much?” Garrett clenched his jaw. Cozying up to the hellcat wasn’t going to be an easy task. “I was thinking,” he began again, “you might want to drive into town with me.” “And why would I want to do that?” “April first was a weekday. I ought to have something at the office to prove I wasn’t in New York City.” “So make me a copy.” She was one ornery creature! “And have you accuse me of doctoring it up to cover my tracks?” She met his eyes, and he felt heat. Only it wasn’t from anger. And it had nothing to do with the sun already blazing down from the wide Texas sky. This heat was searing and electric. It sort of rushed up from his toes and made him a little bit dizzy. He had to look away first. “What about Ethan?” she finally asked. The screen door creaked, and Jessi stepped out onto the porch, wiping her hands on a checkered dish towel. “I’ll take care of Ethan.” Garrett nodded, but Chelsea turned a wary gaze on his little sister. “Don’t do me any favors,” Chelsea said. Jessi had never had what Garrett would call tolerance. Her temper flared quicker than a sparkler on the Fourth of July. Hotter, too. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t offering. I’ll watch him for my brother. For you, I wouldn’t cross the road, and if you think I–” Jessi stopped suddenly and bit her lower lip. Garrett was perplexed. He’d never seen Jessi cut herself off in mid-tirade before. Jessi shook her head, took a deep breath. “Sorry.” Sorry? “Truth is, I just adore little Ethan. I’d love to take care of him this morning.” Garrett almost fell down in shock, and a quick glance at Chelsea’s puckered brow told him she was as surprised as he was. Chelsea waited a moment and finally nodded. “All right, then. I’ll need a few minutes.” Jessi came forward and took the baby from Chelsea’s arms. She propped him on her slender hip. “You can use the shower in my room if you want.” Chelsea’s eyes narrowed, but she nodded, got to her feet and walked into the house without another word. Garrett tilted his head, fixing his baby sister with a questioning glance. “Why the change of heart, Jes?” Jessi looked through the screen door into the house, and Garrett sensed she was waiting until Chelsea had moved out of earshot to answer him. When she finally turned back to him, she looked worried. “Jes?” She pressed her cheek to the baby’s. “Garrett, I think somebody’s hurt that woman. I think somebody’s hurt her bad.” Garrett frowned. “Course she’s hurt. She just lost her sister.” Jessi shook her head. “No, Garrett. I mean really hurt her. Physically.” Her meaning became clear, and Garrett felt a dark cloud settle right over his soul. A thundercloud. “Maybe you’d better tell me about it.” He kept looking at her. Not just looking, though. He kept searching her face as if trying to see something there, and it was making Chelsea damned uncomfortable. She rode beside him in the oversize pickup truck, over dusty roads and finally paved ones, into the small town of Quinn. The truck was big. One of those kinds that needed two sets of wheels in the back just to push it along. Seemed everything about Garrett Brand was big. His home, his truck. Even his speckled horse had been huge. Then again, she supposed it would have to be to support a man of his size. He pulled to a stop in front of an adobe-like structure with no curtains in the windows and a sign over the door that read Sheriff’s Office. “Here we are.” He got out and came around as if to open her door for her. She beat him to it. But then he took her arm to help her out, getting the best of her anyway. Chelsea stepped out, stumbling a little because of her heels and the long reach to the ground. Garrett’s big hands circled her waist surely and firmly, and he lifted her right up off her feet, setting her down again on the small stretch of sidewalk in front of the building. But his hands remained for a second or two, even after her feet touched the ground. She felt every one of those fingers pressing into her flesh. The warmth of them seeped right through her silk suit. His sigh made her look up to see him shaking his head slowly. “What?” His hands still hadn’t moved away. “I…” He looked down, took his hands away. “I’m just not used to handling tiny things,” he said, and he looked embarrassed. “Like Ethan, and now you.” Her throat went dry. She didn’t know how the hell to reply to a comment like that, so she said nothing. Garrett finally turned away and headed for the door. He used a set of keys she hadn’t noticed to unlock it, then pushed it open and stood aside, waiting for her to go first. The office consisted of only one sparsely furnished room, and two cells at the far back. That was it. She looked at him in surprise. “Not much happens around here,” he explained, reading her expression. He left the door wide open after coming in behind her. “Obviously.” He shrugged and moved past her to the file cabinet, which wasn’t even locked. After riffling through a drawer, he pulled out a folder, tossed it onto his desk and took a seat in the big hardwood chair behind it. As he began flipping pages, Chelsea felt restless. She prowled the office, examining some photos on the wall, and paused at one that had been taken right in front of the ranch house. A huge family. Five boys and a little baby girl. Two proud parents standing behind the group of smiling kids. The oldest of the boys, she knew without a doubt, was Garrett. He stood taller than his father, with shoulders that seemed too big for his body. He’d been a gangly teen, she thought a little smugly. Long limbed and awkward. Her gaze stole to him as he sat behind that desk, dwarfing the big antique. He certainly had grown into his body. His proportions were perfect now. He ought to be a centerfold. She drew a little gasp at her uncharacteristic thought. He looked up, caught her staring at him. He held her gaze with his for a long moment, and finally he smiled. His smile was a killer. “That’s a pretty suit, by the way.” Confusion made her blink. She glanced down at the forest green silk skirt and the sleeveless blouse that matched it. “It’s too hot here for silk. I should have known better.” “It’s the same color as your eyes.” Her head came up fast. A deep red color crept up his neck into his face, and he looked for all the world as if his blurted compliment had been as surprising to him as it had been to her. “I mean…you know. Green and all.” He quickly lowered his gaze to the papers in front of him again, shuffling madly. “Yeah,” she said in a voice just above a whisper. “Green and all.” “Muchacho, what are you doing here on a holiday?” Chelsea turned, surprised by the frail, heavily accented voice coming through the open door. “Hey, Marisella,” Garrett said, and he rose, went to the door and took both of the deeply tanned, wrinkled hands in his. “How’s my best girl?” “Oh, now, Garrett…” The elderly woman—who wore jeans and a Travis Tritt T-shirt of all things—gazed up into the big man’s eyes much like little Ethan had done earlier. Her black eyes beamed adoration. “How’s the arthritis, Marisella?” His tone was more serious now. “No worse than usual.” “And ol’ Pedro?” She shook her head slowly, her dark eyes going sad. “He doesn’t eat, Garrett. Pedro, he is turning his nose up at everything I offer. Doc Ramone is away at that veterinary convention, and I am sick with worry.” Marisella glanced over Garrett’s shoulder at Chelsea, then smiled. “And who is the chica?” Garrett turned to her. “Marisella, I’d like you to meet Chelsea Brennan. She’s staying out at the ranch with us for a few days.” A few days? “Chelsea, Marisella del Carmen Jalisco. Prettiest widow lady either side of the Rio Grande.” Marisella’s sun-bronzed face crinkled when she smiled, and she waved a dismissive hand at Garrett’s compliments, nodding to Chelsea. “Good to meet you, Senorita Brennan. You are from the east, yes?” “New York.” Silvery brows went up. “And which of the Brands is it you’ve come to…see?” Chelsea frowned. “I’m not sure what—” “None of them, Marisella,” Garrett interrupted. “She’s a friend. That’s all. Now listen, I’ll bring Jessi by this evening to have a look at that old cat of yours, all right? Maybe we can doctor him up for you.” “It will be a relief to me if you do! When Pedro is not well, I feel as bad as he does.” “We’ll be there.” She reached up to pat Garrett’s cheek: “You do your papa proud, hombre. Never a time anyone in Quinn has trouble, but that you offer a hand. I do believe the woman who captures your heart will have her hands on a diamond.” After the last pointed statement, she aimed a wink in Chelsea’s direction, then turned to go. Garrett hurried to grip her elbow and ease her down the steps, his hands touching her as if she might break. He really did seem gentle. As he stepped outside with Marisella, a breeze wafted in through the door, lifting the papers from the desk and scattering them. And then it died, leaving the air as still and muggy as before. Chelsea automatically went to pick the papers up, gathering them into a stack, one by one. But she paused with one sheet in hand because the date across the top caught her eye. April 1. She froze, then hurriedly scanned the sheet, certain she was about to find a record of a return trip from N.Y. detailed there somewhere. But instead, she found the opposite. Each sheet in the stack was a typewritten record of the day’s events. Only they didn’t read like dry, technical police reports. More like a journal or a diary. This particular page began with a single paragraph that took all the wind out of her sails. Nine a.m.—Career Day at Quinn Elementary. Talked until 10:00 and answered questions till 10:40. Lord, but we have some characters in this town! Almost made me wish I had my own little brood at home. Below that, marked with two stars, a postscript: “Note—check in on Brian Muldoon’s mamma.” “Those are personal notes you’re reading, Chelsea, not official records.” She looked up with a start to see Garrett lounging in the doorway, arms folded across his chest, looking at her. She swallowed hard, shook her head, added the sheet to the top of the stack and crossed the room to hand it to him. He took the papers, glancing down at what she’d been reading, and nodded. “Career Day,” he said. “How could I have forgotten that one?” Chelsea tried to drag her gaze away from him, but couldn’t. Had she been all wrong about him? She cleared her throat, searching for something to say, before latching onto the first thing that came to mind. “What was wrong with Brian Muldoon’s mother?” Garrett frowned down at the paper, then lifted his head and focused his big, soft brown eyes on her face. His voice more gentle than she’d heard up to now, he said, “Brian’s daddy liked to hit her.” Pain sparked to life, though she slammed the door on her emotions before they could show. She fixed her face into an iron mask, refusing to flinch. “And what did you do about it?” “Oh, the usual. We arrested him a couple of times, tried to talk her into pressing charges. She was too afraid of him to do it, though. And we couldn’t blame her. We all knew he wouldn’t serve enough time to do him any good.” “So he’s still here in Quinn, beating the hell out of his wife?” Garrett shook his head slowly. “We don’t take to that kind of thing around here, Chelsea.” “Right. But your hands are tied, isn’t that it?” “Not by a long shot. I warned the worthless fool to stop…or else. He hurt her again. So my brothers and I went over there and…had a little talk with him.” Chelsea tilted her head, staring at him in disbelief. “We made him see that the best thing for all concerned would be for him to get out of Quinn and never set foot here again.” “And he did? Just like that?” “Well, we can be pretty convincing when we set our minds to it.” “You…you beat him up, didn’t you?” He drew a breath that lifted his shoulders and slowly let it all out again. Then he came forward and placed both his hands on her shoulders. She automatically shrugged away from his touch. She didn’t like men putting their hands on her. He frowned, but let his hands fall to his sides. “Chelsea Brennan, I’d rather be shot than lift a violent hand to anyone…or anything, for that matter.” “Oh?” He was too close to her. She could feel his warm breath on her lips. “Thing is, I’d have rather been drawn and quartered than to stand by and do nothing. So I told him to leave her alone in the only language he could understand. The way I see it, I didn’t have much of a choice.” “And he never came back?” “Nope. He never did.” “You violated his civil rights,” she observed, but it was a weak argument. “You could lose your job and go to prison for that.” He nodded slowly. “No man has the right to lift a hand to a woman, Chelsea. Nor to a child. If you’d been in my shoes, would you have done anything different?” She met his gaze head-on, and for just a moment the pain got the best of her. “If I’d been in your shoes,” she said softly, “I’d have shot the bastard.” He narrowed his eyes as he studied her. “You’re one angry woman, Chelsea Brennan.” She nodded. “You might want to take back your offer to help me find the man who murdered my sister, Garrett Brand. Because when I do, I’ll probably kill him.” He smiled a little, and for a second she wondered why. “I take that to mean you’re finally convinced it wasn’t me,” he explained when she frowned at him. She lowered her head, remembering her accusations, the way she’d hit him. If she’d been wrong…But it was pretty obvious she had been wrong, wasn’t it? “I probably owe you an apology.” “Probably.” He stood there, and his hands rose as if to touch her shoulders again. She stiffened, and he stopped himself, lowering them again with a thoughtful expression on his face. He was waiting. “I apologize.” “I accept,” he said with an abbreviated bow, really no more than a dip of his head and shoulders, but he never broke eye contact. “Then you’re more forgiving than I’d be.” There was an invisible beam running between her eyes and his. Something that held her captive. “Must be those green eyes of yours, making me feel generous.” He moved a little closer. Warmth curled in the pit of her stomach before she reminded herself he’d just given similarly effusive compliments to Marisella. “Then you won’t object to my taking my nephew home anymore?” Garrett stiffened and the smile left his face. “I’m afraid I have to.” Shock sent her backward. “Why?” “I still have some unanswered questions, Chelsea.” “Your unanswered questions don’t mean squat to me, Sheriff. We’re talking about my nephew here. You can’t keep him.” Garrett pushed a hand through his thick hair and turned to pace away from her. Then he came back again. “Will you just use your head for a minute, woman? Suppose you’re right, and this no-account your sister was with did kill her. Don’t you suppose he’s looking for his son about now?” “I’m sure of it, you big, dense redneck. That’s why I want to get Ethan the hell out of here.” “And you think this guy doesn’t know about you? You think in more than a year with him your sister never once told him about you? Legally, he could still take his son from you, Chelsea. You wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in court. Not unless you can prove your suspicions about him are true.” “He can’t take Ethan from me if he can’t find me,” she argued, no longer sure why she was in such a hurry to get out of Texas and away from Garrett Brand. The man shook her in ways she’d never been shaken before. “Hell, you said yourself you’d seen him from your apartment window. It kind of follows that he knows where you live!” She opened her mouth, but lost the power of speech. He knows where I live. A gut-deep fear engulfed her–one she hadn’t felt since she was a little girl lying in bed late at night, listening to the thudding sounds of fists against flesh and the guttural groans of her mother. A man like that one knew where she lived. She’d sworn she would never be afraid again. But she was afraid now. Two hesitant backward steps put her up against a wall. One she needed, or she’d collapse. She was trembling. God, she hated this kind of fear. “Chelsea?” He was there in front of her, looking worried and scared. “I’ll kill him,” she whispered, and for a second she wasn’t even sure if she was talking about her own father or Ethan’s. “Damn, your face is as white as a lily, woman.” And a moment later, he lifted his hands, hesitated and awkwardly gathered her close to him. He held her to his chest and ran one hand up and down her back the way he might do with the baby. Trying to comfort her. “I didn’t say that to scare you, Chelsea. I didn’t mean to—” “I’m not afraid of that bastard,” she muttered. “No, of course you’re not. Hell, any woman who’d march right up to a fella my size and deliver a right hook isn’t afraid of anything.” One of his hands ran over her hair, and she closed her eyes. Then, realizing how very safe she felt in his arms, she went stiff as a board. “I don’t need any man to protect me. He stilled. Then slowly, his hands fell away and he stepped back. “I didn’t say you did. But let’s just be practical. If you go home to New York, he’ll know where to find you and Ethan. But right now, he has no idea where you are.” “Assuming he’s even looking for us. He might not care any more about his son than he did Michele.” “Maybe not. But why risk it?” She searched his face as if the answer was there. “Just stay for a day or two, Chelsea. Long enough for me to try to find out who this man is and what he’s capable of. I have resources you don’t have. Please. Do it for Ethan.” She lifted her chin a little. It galled her to admit Ethan was safer here with Garrett than he would be back in New York with her, but dammit, the man had a point. And she couldn’t very well risk the baby for the sake of her pride. “All right,” she said at last. “All right, we’ll stay. But only for a day or two.” Garrett smiled fully, and just for an instant, Chelsea forgot how to breathe. Now that she knew he hadn’t killed her sister, she noticed that this man was attractive. Incredibly attractive. And that was something Chelsea had stopped noticing about any man a very long time ago. Maybe Garrett Brand wasn’t physically dangerous to her after all. But she was only now beginning to realize how emotionally dangerous it might be to spend much time around him. Because he couldn’t possibly be as kind and gentle as he was pretending. No man could. Chapter 6 Vincent de Lorean downed his third shot of tequila and lifted his gaze from the sparkling water in the terrazzo-tiled pool to scan the faces of the three men who stood in front of him. He didn’t like the expressions they wore. He didn’t expect to like the news they were about to deliver, either. Setting the cut-crystal glass down on the umbrella-shaded table beside him, he sent a pointed glance at Monique. “Go inside.” She gave him a playful pout, but obeyed. She knew better than to question him. Smarter than the last pretty woman he’d brought here. Maybe she’d turn out better. Monique rose with the sensuality she knew he liked, lowering her long legs slowly, running one hand over plump breasts and then slowly over her belly before turning to click her heels across the concrete and wiggle her butt through the stucco villa’s glass doors. The three men turned to watch her bikini-clad body as she moved away from them. They wanted her. Vincent knew it, and it pleased him. He liked other people to crave what was his. As long as they didn’t try to take it from him. “Have you found my son?” he asked, and all three heads snapped around to face him again. Jonas had been with him for ten years, and Vincent knew the fear in his eyes was real when he shook his head slowly from side to side. William, too, had the good sense to be afraid. But the third one, the new man…something was wrong there. Lash, he called himself, though Vincent was unsure whether it was a first name or last. He stood there, by all appearances, respectful. But there was no fear in his face nor in his blue eyes. In fact, Vincent smelled the smallest hint of defiance in the man. He needed a lesson, this one. Vincent knew how to keep his men loyal. Fear. Once they knew he held their lives in his hands, they would never betray him. He sat quietly while Jonas spoke, assessing the best way to deliver the lesson. “It’s only a matter of time, boss. You know that we will–” “The sister?” Vincent interrupted, having come to a decision on today’s teaching methods. “What about the sister?” “She was in El Paso,” Jonas said. “She identified Michele’s body, asked about Ethan, then left. She hasn’t checked into any hotels in the area and she hasn’t returned to New York.” “Then where the hell is she?” Jonas closed his eyes, swallowed hard. “We have men watching her apartment, Vince. We’ll find her. I swear it.” Vincent pursed his lips and shifted his gaze to Lash. “You. You were supposed to be staking out the medical examiner’s office. You were told to follow this Chelsea Brennan when she left there. What happened?” He didn’t flinch or look away. He shrugged instead. “I lost her. It was pouring rain and she was driving like a maniac.” Vincent didn’t like this man. He usually never hired men larger than himself or better-looking. He’d made an exception this time, because his oldest employee, Jonas, had told him what an asset this one would be. Furthermore, this Lash’s voice held the slightest hesitation. The way a man spoke when he was lying…or when he was nervous. Vincent’s ego preferred the latter theory to the former. Nervousness wasn’t fear, but it was a start. The lesson he had in mind should solidify the man’s loyalty. Vincent drew a breath and released it slowly. As he did, he dropped his right hand to the folded towel beside his lounge chair. They couldn’t see that hand. And they couldn’t see the gun he pulled from beneath the towel, either. Not until he quickly leveled it on Jonas and pulled the trigger. Jonas didn’t have time to blink. His head snapped back. His knees buckled. He thudded to the concrete. William staggered a few steps backward before he started to cry and snivel, probably expecting to be next. The other one just stood there, staring right into Vincent’s eyes, his own as cold as ice. Those eyes registered disgust and a little surprise. Still no fear. “Jonas told me you’d be an asset,” Vincent said softly, and he examined the silvery weapon in his hands. “He was wrong. I don’t tolerate mistakes in my employees. Do you understand that now?” “Jonas was the smartest man you had working for you,” Lash replied in a steady, controlled voice. “He might have found your son for you. Now…who knows?” Vincent stood up, walked closer to Lash. “I know. You will find him. And if you fail…” He said nothing more. Just sent a glance down at the body. “Now get him out of here. And find that woman. If she thinks she can keep my son from me, she’s going to be very sorry. As sorry as her pathetic sister.” Garrett took his time. He drove Chelsea around Quinn, pointing out the shops he thought might interest her. Then he took her over the River Road to show her the Rio Grande. The idea was to calm her down a little bit. Because she’d been damned scared back there in his office. Hell, he’d never seen that kind of fear come over a person so suddenly or so completely as it had come over her when he’d pointed out that a killer knew where she lived. She might talk a big game and she might be so filled with anger she was ready to take on the world. But deep inside, Chelsea Brennan was a frightened woman. And she didn’t like to be touched. He’d discerned that, as well. Whenever he’d had call to put his hands on her–which, as a matter of fact, he’d done more often than was probably necessary–she reacted like a skittish colt. Got all stiff and nervous and always ended the contact just as quickly as possible. He was thinking that Jessi had been right about her suspicions. That maybe Chelsea had been hurt, physically hurt, by someone in her past. He didn’t like thinking that because it made him angry, and he hated being angry. He was too big to allow himself the luxury of a short temper. All his life he’d struggled to be calm and relaxed, no matter what. Hell, he hadn’t even lost his temper when he’d put the fear of God into Brian Muldoon’s heavy-fisted father. And the truth was, he’d taken his brothers along, not for support, but just to be sure he didn’t actually hurt the man, much as the bastard deserved to be hurt. He didn’t like the feeling that came over him now, though, when he thought about someone lifting a violent hand to the woman beside him. Because it went beyond anger. It made him sick. He almost didn’t want to know if it were true. He almost didn’t want to know who had hurt her. Almost. She seemed a little calmer when they arrived back at the ranch that afternoon. Not much, but a little. Ethan sat in a high chair in the kitchen, and Elliot was making motor noises and driving a spoonful of green goo into his mouth. Garrett frowned. “Where’d that come from?” “The baby food or the high chair?” Jessi asked after taking a bite of her fajita. Then she grinned. “Actually, it doesn’t matter. Both of them were provided by our grouchy brother who claims to dislike babies.” “Wes?” Garrett shifted his gaze to Wes, who scowled back at him. “Kid needed a place to sit, didn’t he?” Elliot grinned broadly at Wes’s muttered reply. “Hell, I think Wes here would make a great little mother. Don’t you, Jessi?” “Of course he would. He ought to have a whole slew of babies crawling all over him, and maybe run a nursery school on the side.” “Old Mother Goose,” Elliot sang, “when he wanted to wander, would fly through the air on a very fine, um, Paint. Gee, Wes, that doesn’t fit. Any chance you can change Paint’s name to Gander?” Wes grimaced and attacked his fajita. Garrett just shook his head and went to the table. “Did you leave us any crumbs or anything?” Elliot pointed to the heaping platter in the table’s center. “I know it’s not enough to fill you up, big brother, but it might make an appetizer.” “Come on, Chelsea,” Jessi said. “There’s plenty. Sit down and eat.” Garrett noticed Chelsea’s surprised expression. She covered it fast and came forward anyway. Wes grabbed the platter and set it down in front of her, while Elliot popped a bite into the baby’s mouth, then got up to go to the fridge. He poured a glass of milk and set it down in front of Chelsea. Without a word, he just set it down, then returned to his baby-feeding duties. Chelsea looked disconcerted. “Th-thank you.” Wes cleared his throat. “We, uh, we were rough on you last night.” He turned those black eyes of his on her. Garrett saw it and half expected her to melt into a puddle at his devilishly handsome, half-Comanche brother’s feet the way most women did if he so much as glanced their way. “I wasn’t exactly polite,” Chelsea replied, remaining solid. Jessi passed the tossed salad. “We Brands are a tight bunch. We take care of our own. But we’ve been talking and…well, I guess you were just doing the same thing we’d have done in your shoes. So–” “What my sister is trying to say, Chelsea,” Elliot explained, “is that we’re sorry about what happened to your sister, and we want to help you and little Ethan through this if we can.” Garrett felt his back straighten and battled a smile. Maybe he’d taught them something after all. Chelsea sat at his right, and he thought he saw a lump come and go in her throat, but he wasn’t sure. He thought he understood the change now. He was pretty certain Jessi had told the other two about what she’d heard and about her theory. He knew the thought of some bastard beating up on a little thing like Chelsea would turn their stomachs the same way it did his own. “I, um…” Chelsea shook her head and pushed away from the table. “I have to go upstairs.” She turned and quickly left. “Garrett?” Jessi asked, staring after her. “I don’t know, Jes. Let’s let her be for now. I’m going back to the office later to run a check on her and her sister, see what I can find out. Jessi, I’ll need you to come with me. Marisella’s cat is off his feed again, and she’s making herself sick worrying about him.” “Sure.” “Elliot and I can take care of things here tonight, Garrett. Leave whenever you need to.” Garrett nodded at Wes and, a few hours later, did just that. But what he found out was not one bit pleasing to him, and it only made matters worse. That evening, after he’d dropped Jessi at Marisella’s, he’d spent a good hour sitting at his desk trying to get over the shock of it. Chelsea Brennan’s father, Calvin Brennan, had been arrested twenty-five times for spousal and/or child abuse. New York State Social Services had been called in when school officials reported the two girls often coming to school covered in bruises. But they hadn’t taken action soon enough. Calvin was in Attica, serving the eighteenth year of a twenty-year sentence for beating his wife to death. Garrett swore under his breath and thought again about the turmoil and the pain and the rage he saw every time he looked into Chelsea Brennan’s eyes. And he felt a burning moisture taking shape in his own. Chelsea sat by the fireplace, imagining a cheerful fire burning in the grate. Anything cheerful would be a relief if it would dispel the grim mood that had settled over her. Elliot and Wes bantered in the kitchen over whose turn it was to clean up the dinner dishes. From the wide window in the living room, Chelsea could see Jessi feeding carrots to a spotted horse. An ancient pickup truck with a driver Chelsea had recognized as Marisella del Carmen Whatever had dropped Jessi off twenty minutes ago, but Garrett still hadn’t returned. She wondered what was keeping him in town. A woman, maybe? The idea gnawed at her a little more than it should have as she watched Jessi coax the beautiful animal closer and then stroke its muzzle as it snapped the carrots from her hands. Behind Jessi, the grasslands seemed to go on forever, a wide green blanket beneath a gigantic, sapphire sky as blue as little Ethan’s eyes. So near the desert, it was impressive, that band of green. She remembered the photo she’d seen, the one of the Brand family taken years ago, and she thought this must have been a magical place for children. Room to run. Room to grow. Their huge family surrounding them like a protective cocoon. A child would thrive here. Ethan sat on the braided rug in the center of the polished hardwood floor, chewing on a worn-out old teddy bear’s paw. Chelsea had no idea where the bear had come from. No doubt one of the Brands had dug it up from somewhere. They treated Ethan as if he was their own. Close beside Ethan–as always, she’d noticed–the big, gentle hound dog, eyes alert, watching the baby’s every move and occasionally inching closer in hopes of a pat or a tug on the ear. Chelsea battled the sense of unease that had settled on her like a shroud at the dinner table tonight. These people were good and kind. They had the type of happy, stable life she and her sister had always craved and dreamed about. And along comes Chelsea Brennan and her dead sister’s baby, with maybe a killer on her trail. The thought that she might bring disaster raining down on this haven ate away at her. They wanted to help her but they’d only get hurt if they tried. The way her mother had. And she couldn’t let that happen. Again. Yet, for the moment, Ethan was safer here than in any other place she could imagine. Chelsea was torn. To battle her restlessness, she got up and headed into the kitchen, not the least bit worried about Ethan. She’d noticed the way the outlets in the living room had all been plugged and anything breakable had been moved out of Ethan’s reach. Someone had placed an expandable gate across the bottom of the stairway. Ethan was safe here. Safe. She walked into the kitchen just in time to see Elliot snap Wes with the twisted end of a dish towel. Both laughed out loud, then stopped when they saw her standing in the doorway. “Why not let me do the dishes this time?” she offered. “I know you have stuff to do outside.” “Hey, that’s–” “No way,” Wes interrupted his brother. “You’re a guest. Garrett would have our hides nailed to the barn wall.” “At least let me help. I need something to do, you know?” Wes’s dark eyes held hers for a moment. They were powerful, his black eyes. He was obviously part Native American, and Chelsea wondered why he seemed so different from the other Brands. He also had a way of looking at a person that was piercing and knowing. He nodded, snatched the dish towel from his brother and tossed it to her. “Okay. You can dry.” “Okay,” she said, catching the towel and moving forward to the sink where Elliot had resumed washing dishes. Wes went back to clearing the table. Chelsea could see these people had decided to make her welcome here. And though she was uncomfortable with them, she was grateful, too. If it hadn’t been for this family, God only knew what might have happened to the baby. “It’s nice to see men doing housework and a woman outside with the horses,” she said in an attempt at normal conversation. “Is it always like this?” “We share the work around here,” Elliot told her. “Garrett says he doesn’t want Jess raised to think all she’s good for is cooking and cleaning for a bunch of males. So we divvy up the duties equally, inside and out.” She nodded. It was something she would have expected Garrett to think about. “I saw a photo in his office, of the whole family, I think, only you were all kids. You know the one I mean?” Elliot suddenly stilled with a plate in his hand. Frowning, Chelsea turned to see Wes had paused in what he’d been doing, as well. “I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?” “No,” Wes told her. He gave his head a shake and gathered up a few more plates, turned and brought them to the sink. “We all have copies of that photo. It was the last one we had taken before Orrin and Maria were killed.” She frowned. “Your parents?” “Yeah,” Elliot said softly. “Our parents.” “Orrin was my father, Maria my stepmother, but she treated me like her own son,” Wes clarified. “I’m so sorry. God, you were all so young. Jessi was just a baby in that photo. What did you do?” “Garrett held things together.” Elliot shook his head, plunging his hands back into the soapy water. “He’d only just finished high school when it happened and he’d already been accepted at Texas State, but he didn’t go. He stayed home instead. Ran the ranch as well as any grown man could have done. And took care of this brood like a mother hen herding chicks.” “The state wanted to separate us,” Wes said, picking up the story. “They wanted to send me to a family on the Comanche reservation, and the others into foster care elsewhere. If it hadn’t been for Garrett, they would have.” “No wonder you all love him so much.” “We’d kill for him,” Wes said, his voice low, his face expressionless, but Chelsea sensed the deep feeling underlying his words. “We’d die for him,” Elliot added with a firm nod and a slight crack in his voice. It made her throat go tight to see such closeness in a family. It was the sort of thing she’d always fantasized about, but had long since given up on finding for herself. She dried the last cup and stacked it in the cupboard, swallowed hard and decided to change the subject. “There were six children in the photo.” “Yeah. Adam and Ben are the two you haven’t met. Adam’s in New York. Landed himself a job there last summer,” Elliot explained. “So far from home?” It seemed uncharacteristic in such a tight family. “His fiancee dumped him for another man the day of their wedding,” Elliot went on. “He couldn’t stand being in the same town with her any—” “Elliot.” Wes’s voice held a warning. Family secrets, Chelsea supposed. And she wasn’t family. “I didn’t mean to pry.” Elliot sent her a sheepish smile. Wes just sighed, shook his head and grabbed a sponge to begin wiping off the table. “Hell, everyone in town knows about it anyway,” Elliot added, unperturbed by his brother’s censure. “And Ben, he’s off in the mountains somewhere in Tennessee. Took off after his wife, Penny, died nearly a year ago, and we haven’t heard a word from him since.” “Garrett has,” Wes contradicted. “If he didn’t know Ben was all right, he’d have hauled all of us over there to hunt him down.” “Yeah, but a postcard once a month telling us he’s still breathing isn’t what I call correspondence.” “He must be hurting,” Chelsea said softly. Elliot lowered his head in a sad, slow nod. “We Brand men haven’t exactly been lucky in love.” “I just wish they’d both lick their wounds and get back here,” Wes declared. “It’s tough running a ranch short-handed.” “What we need,” Elliot remarked, pulling the plug and watching the water swirl down the drain, “is one good crisis. If they thought we were in trouble, they’d be here so fast—” “Careful what you wish for, boy,” Wes warned him. He gave the oval oak table one last swipe and tossed the sponge into the sink. Then he snatched his hat off the back of a chair and dropped it on his head. “Come on. We’re burning daylight, and those two heifers are due to freshen any day now.” Elliot took the towel from Chelsea, wiped his hands and sent her a wink as he followed his brother outside. Chelsea decided maybe Garrett had been right after all. It was safe here. In fact, while she hated to admit it after the way she’d initially treated all of them, she felt safer here than she’d ever felt in her entire life. Maybe it would be better to stay…just for a couple of days. Just to be sure her sister’s killer wasn’t a threat to her or to Ethan. She picked up the phone. If she was staying, she’d need more funds, and she knew her last week’s paycheck would be in her mail by now. She called her apartment manager, who was also a friend who lived down the hall from her, and felt lucky to catch the party animal at home. “Mindy?” “Chelsea? Is that you?” “Yes. I’m—” “Where are you? What’s going on? Did you find Michele?” That was Mindy. She talked a mile a minute and barely took time to breathe in between. “Michele…” Chelsea swallowed past the lump in her throat. “She’s dead, Mindy.” “Oh, my God! What happened? Are you okay? Did you find the baby? Is he all right? What about—” “He’s all right. He’s with me. We’re both fine. But I’m going to be down here a while.” “You need anything, Chels? Anything I can do on this end, you know? Water your plants, send you something. ‘Cause if I can do anything, I—” “Yes. I do need you to do something.” “Anything. You name it and I’ll do it. You poor kid, are you sure you’re all right?” “Fine. I need you to forward my mail for a few days, okay?” “Sure. You got it. Let me grab a pen…Okay, here we go. Give me the address.” “I’m at the Texas Brand, Quinn, Texas.” “Sounds like a dude ranch.” “I don’t know the zip.” “I’ll get it from the post office, Chelsea. Don’t worry, I’ll send your stuff out tomorrow morning first thing, okay?” “Thanks. I appreciate it.” “Chelsea?” “Yes?” “Michele’s…funeral. You’ll let me know, won’t you?” Chelsea closed her eyes as a deep shudder worked up from her feet all the way to her shoulders. She had to bury her sister. If this didn’t kill her, she didn’t think anything ever would. “Yeah. I’ll let you know.” “Thanks, Chels. You take care, okay?” Chelsea didn’t answer. She just replaced the receiver and turned her head to see sweet little Ethan on the floor. He’d fallen asleep there, and that old dog had curled up close beside him. The creak of the screen door brought her gaze around, and it locked with Garrett’s. His eyes—deep brown and soft as velvet—scanned her face, narrowed and probed. “Chelsea?” She lowered her head. “I don’t think I can do this.” He took a step toward her, then stopped, stood still. “Chelsea Brennan, I think you can do just about anything you set your mind to.” She shook her head. He sighed deeply, his eyes roaming her face for a long moment. Then he came a little closer. “Did I ever tell you how much you remind me of my mamma?” She looked up at him then, brows raised. “She was the prettiest woman in the state of Texas. Her eyes were brown, not green, but they flashed with that same fire I see in yours sometimes. I never thought I’d know another woman with the kind of strength she had in her. But I was wrong about that.” “I’m not strong.” “To survive what you have, lady, you must have bones of solid granite.” Chelsea’s eyes widened as she searched his face. And she saw the knowledge there, as plain as day. He didn’t try to hide it. “You know, don’t you?” “About your father? Yeah, I know.” Chelsea closed her eyes, unable to look at him, knowing that her sordid past was an open book to him. She should have known that he’d find out. Her family history was largely a matter of public record after all, and he was a sheriff with access to all of it. “I dream about him, you know,” she whispered, not sure why her lips were moving, why she felt compelled to tell this man anything more horrible than he already knew. “I dream about the day he’s released from prison. I’m there at the front gate, waiting for him. And as soon as he sees me, as soon as he looks straight into my eyes…I kill him.” She looked at Garrett, half-expecting to see shock or disapproval in his eyes. But she only saw a reflection of her own pain. As if he felt it, too. “It scares me, Garrett. It scares the hell out of me because I think I could really do it.” “Then he’d win. Because you’d end up in prison, or dead, and every one of the Brennan women would be gone. And I think deep down, you know that, Chelsea, I think you’re too smart to let him get the best of you that way. Even if you weren’t, I don’t think you’d kill him. Not when it came right down to it. Because deep down inside, you’re not like him. Not at all.” “I wish I was as sure of that as you are,” she whispered. “I hate him.” “I know.” He took another step, this one bringing him close to her, but he didn’t touch her. He just stood near enough so she could feel the heat from his body floating into hers. When she breathed, it was his scent and his breath she was inhaling. “I don’t even know him, Chelsea, and I hate him, too.” “Why?” She looked up as she asked the question, saw him staring down at her. “Because he hurt you.” “Why do you give a damn about that? You barely know me.” Garrett shrugged his big shoulders. “Damned if I know. Been asking myself the same thing all night. Doesn’t matter, though, does it? Point is, I do give a damn. And right now, I’m fighting everything in me to keep from putting my arms around you, little Chelsea Brennan, and pulling you close to me and holding you until you stop shaking like a scared rabbit. Just the way I used to do with Jessi late at night when she’d had a bad dream. Or with Elliot when he’d wake up crying for Mamma. I’m fighting it because I know you don’t like men putting their hands on you. And I can’t say as I blame you for it.” He spoke slowly, his deep voice soft and steady and low. She realized he was trying to calm her, comfort her. “M-maybe…it would be all right.” He sighed, and his big hands slipped around her waist, their touch warm, but light as air. He didn’t pull her to him. He just put his arms loosely around her and waited. Chelsea was the one who moved forward until her body was pressed to his. She turned her head to the side and rested it against his chest, right over the drumming of his heart. His arms tightened but only a little. One hand moved upward to stroke her hair slowly, soothingly, over and over. “No one,” she whispered, her words coming harder now, “has held me like this…since my mother…” “It’s okay,” Garrett told her. “It’s gonna be okay now, Chelsea.” “We heard him yelling at her. Heard the slaps. It was nothing we hadn’t heard before. So many times before. She told us to stay in our room when he was like that, but I couldn’t. It was different that time. There was something inside me, telling me…and I knew…I knew she was in trouble. I knew it when she stopped screaming. So I went…and she was just lying there…her face was so…it didn’t even look like her.” His hand stilled in her hair, and she felt his muscles go taut. “And him?” “Gone,” she whispered. “Just gone. I bent over my mother. I touched her. I shook her. But she wouldn’t wake up. She just wouldn’t wake up.” His arms tightened around her convulsively. He held her hard now and rocked very gently from side to side. “Damn,” he muttered. “I was nine years old, Garrett. But it feels like yesterday.” He held her tighter. “Mom,” Chelsea cried softly, “Jesus, Mom, why?” Something warm trickled down her face, surprising her. Shocking her. Tears. She hadn’t cried since that night. But she was crying now. And she couldn’t seem to stop the tears. Garrett’s shirt dampened with them, then became soaked with them, and still she cried. So many years’ worth of teardrops and she wasn’t sure she’d ever stop crying again. Chapter 7 When she heard her brothers’ booted feet coming up the steps, Jessi turned away from the screen door and put a finger to her lips. Wes frowned at her. Elliot tilted his head. She waved them closer, still shushing them, and when they were close enough, she pointed. In the kitchen, Garrett held the mite of a woman in his great big arms. He held her very close and stroked her hair while she sobbed as if her heart were breaking into a million bits. And as they watched, Chelsea’s hands rose slowly until they closed on Garrett’s shoulders, and she clung to him as if she were holding on for dear life. The tears she shed were not pretty ones. She sobbed out loud with great heaving spasms that should have torn a woman her size right in half. As tears brimmed in her own eyes, Jessi turned away and walked quietly off the big front porch. She didn’t stop until she’d reached the gate to the east pasture, where horses grazed contentedly, and then she leaned against it, blinking her eyes dry. She wasn’t surprised when Wes’s hand lowered to her shoulder. “What happened in there, Jessi?” Jessi turned around and flung herself right into her brother’s arms, and he hugged her tight. “Oh, Wes, it’s more horrible than I thought! I know I shouldn’t have been listening at the door, but I couldn’t help myself when I heard what she was saying.” Wes eased her away from him and searched her face with those black eyes that seemed to see right inside a person. Jessi wiped her eyes dry with the back of one hand, then shook her head. “We can’t let her go back east. I’ll tell you that much. That girl needs a family like nobody I’ve ever seen.” “She isn’t a stray dog, Jessi,” Wes said softly. “You can’t just decide to keep her.” Jessi sniffed. “I’ve already decided. Now all I have to do is convince her she belongs here.” Elliot had joined them by this time and heard most of what they said. He stood very still, staring thoughtfully back toward the house. Wes shook his head slowly. “We have enough trouble on our hands, Jessi. My gut tells me that this woman is only gonna bring more.” “I don’t care,” Jessi told him. “I want her to stay.” “Contrary to what you’ve been led to believe, little sister,” Wes replied, “you can’t have everything you want.” “Well, now, I wouldn’t be too sure about that.” Elliot looked at them briefly, then right back at the house again. “When’s the last time you saw Garrett hugging on a female the way he was hugging on that one?” “Don’t be stupid, Elliot. Garrett’s never given a damn about women.” “There’s a first time for everything, Wes. And from what I saw in that kitchen, I’d say our big brother’s perched himself right on the very brink of giving a damn.” “Yeah,” Jessi said slowly, drawing out the word as the solution became clear in her mind. “All he needs is a little nudge.” “No way.” Wes’s narrow eyes went from Jessi to Elliot and back again. “No. You two stay the hell out of this. I mean it. We don’t need any women cluttering things up around here, and…ah, hell, Jes, don’t look like that. I didn’t mean you. Just think about it for a minute. Look at Adam and Ben, both nursing broken hearts. You want to put Garrett through the same garbage?” “Just because love didn’t work out for Adam or Ben doesn’t mean it won’t for Garrett,” Jessi argued. “Come on, Wes! Garrett is different.” “Chelsea Brennan is trouble.” “Maybe she is,” Jessi went on with a little pout. “But she’s in trouble, too. And since when has trouble been anything the Brands couldn’t handle?” Wes shook his head, turned on his heel and started to walk away. “Wait, Wes.” He stopped, but didn’t turn to face her. “Just listen. Let me tell you what I overheard in that kitchen. Then decide whether you want to help her or not.” He turned slowly, grimacing. “I didn’t say we shouldn’t help her, kid, just that we shouldn’t force-feed her to Garrett.” “Didn’t see nobody forcing him just now,” Elliot said, earning a scowl. He grinned at Wes and nodded to Jessi. “Go on, hon. Tell us what you know.” Garrett had never felt more big and awkward and clumsy than he had when he’d held Chelsea’s small body in his arms. But he’d also never felt weaker. Made his knees turn to jelly to think about the hell she’d been through. And the thought that she’d actually talked to him about it, that she’d let him comfort her even a little bit, filled him to brimming with something else altogether, something he didn’t even try to put a name to, because he knew he couldn’t. Chores were finished, dinner over. And, as was their habit of an evening, the Brands gathered in the huge living room to rehash the day. Elliot and Jessi sat close together on the sofa, exchanging glances now and then that told Garrett they were sharing a secret. Wes had the settee to himself and looked pensive. Garrett had opted for the big easy chair, and Chelsea sat in the rocker close beside it, while Ethan crawled around the floor in a diaper and T-shirt, rushing from one pair of legs to another with all the energy of a frisky colt. This time, he headed for Wes’s legs and turned himself around to plop down onto his backside, staring up at Wes expectantly. Wes didn’t notice. “Ga!” Ethan announced when Wes hadn’t looked down at him quickly enough to suit him. When Wes did look, Ethan put his hands up in the air. International baby code for “Hey, pick me up, you big dummy.” A panicked look came into Wes’s eyes. “Oh, go on, Wes. He won’t bite you,” Jessi teased. When Wes still hesitated, Jessi jumped to her feet, scooped the baby up and deposited him gently on Wes’s lap. Ethan grinned from ear to ear and reached up to grab Wes’s slightly hawkish nose. Elliot burst out laughing, and Wes scowled at him as he gently removed the baby’s hand. Ethan snuggled into Wes’s lap, resting, for the moment. Wes looked stunned. “I still don’t understand why his mamma left him here with us,” Jessi mused, returning to the sofa. “And his name couldn’t have been a coincidence. Garrett, are you sure you didn’t—” “Jessi, I’ve sworn on a stack of Bibles I didn’t father this baby. You telling me you still don’t believe me?” Being accused in front of Chelsea was somehow worse, though Garrett wasn’t quite sure why. “Of course I believe you! I was gonna say, are you sure you didn’t meet Chelsea’s sister somewhere, maybe a long time ago? I mean, she must have known you sometime.” Garrett looked at Chelsea, saw the silent question in her eyes. “No, I didn’t tell them,” he said. “Why don’t you get that photo and show it to Jessi. See if she remembers.” He hoped she would. Because he’d feel better if he were sure Chelsea believed what he’d told her, and having Jessi confirm his recollection would go a long ways toward convincing her. “I don’t know why I didn’t show you all right at the beginning. Instead, I stormed in here like a…” She shook her head. “Like a wet hen?” Jessi offered. “No,” Elliot said. “No, I’d say she was more like a wounded bear.” “She can’t be a bear, Elliot. She’s way too small,” Wes countered. “She came in here like a Texas wildfire.” They were all grinning at Chelsea, treating her just the way they treated each other, and at first Garrett thought she’d be offended. But she shook her head again in self-deprecation and smiled back at them as she got up from the rocker. She headed upstairs and Garrett watched her go, wondering how anything as delicate-looking as she was could have such a steel core. She came back seconds later and handed the photograph to Jessi, who waited at the bottom of the stairs. Jessi studied it, tilting her head. “She looks familiar.” Jessi passed the photo to Elliot, who passed it to Wes. “I know!” Jessi shouted, startling both Ethan and ol’ Blue. “Remember, Garrett, it was over a year ago? That girl you found out on the River Road with the flat tire.” “That’s right,” Elliot said. “You changed her tire and then had her follow you back here and stay to dinner. I remember now. Hell, she was out to here!” He held his hands out in front of his belly in an exaggerated account of her size. Wes shook his head. “She was not out to there, Elliot. She was obviously pregnant though. She seemed scared or something. Remember? We offered her a room for a night or two, but she was in a hurry to move on.” “Didn’t she tell us her name was Ann or something? Ann Smith, wasn’t it?” Jessi said softly as if thinking aloud. “Why would she have given us a false name?” Chelsea came close to where Garrett sat, taking the photo from Wes as she passed, and stared down at it. “Maybe she was running from him even then. God, why didn’t she just come back to me?” “If she knew she was in trouble, Chelsea, she might not have wanted to get you involved. Or maybe…maybe she never got the chance to get that far,” Garrett said gently. Chelsea nodded. “I still don’t know why she’d name the baby after Garrett and then bring him back here,” Jessi said. “I do,” Chelsea replied, her voice raw. She looked around the room at each of them. “Garrett told me about her visit here, and I’ve had some time to think about this. And I think I know exactly why she did what she did.” Garrett tilted his head, eager to hear Chelsea’s theory. “She was here, even if it was just for a short time. And she knew…she saw what you have.” Garrett frowned, but Chelsea went on. “When Michele and I were little, we used to pretend a lot. Our favorite make-believe game was the one where we had a big family. Lots of brothers and sisters. A nice big house, with a yard.” She looked down at ol’ Blue. He cocked his ears and whined, then hauled himself to his feet and came to her for a pat, which she gave. “Even a dog,” she said, stroking his head and smiling. But it was a sad smile. “We’d get out all our dolls and stuffed animals and they’d all play a part in the fantasy.” She drew a breath, swallowed hard. “When my sister walked through your front door, she must have seen our childhood make-believe world come true, in everything you have right here. And not just because of the big house, or the dog, or the number of people here. Because of the love that fills this place. She must have thought this would be the happiest home in the world for a child. So later, when she had to find a safe place for her baby, she thought of this place.” “So, she brought little Ethan here and left him on our doorstep,” Jessi said. “And it was probably the highest compliment anyone’s ever paid us, Chelsea. Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to have these big lugs. Thanks for reminding me.” Elliot cleared his throat, averting his gaze momentarily. Wes just stared down at that baby in his lap as if he was seeing him for the first time. “Chelsea, we haven’t talked about this before,” Garrett said as she took her seat in the rocker once more. “You don’t have to now, if it’s too much. But I checked with the Texas Rangers in El Paso earlier today. They said Michele died of a drug overdose and that they had no reason to suspect foul play.” Chelsea’s eyes widened and she looked up at him fast. “You didn’t tell them about Ethan—” “No. Of course not. I don’t want his father coming for him any more than you do. But that’s going to have to be dealt with sooner or later. The man has a legal claim–” Chelsea reached across the short distance between his chair and hers, clasping one of Garrett’s hands with two of her own. “Garrett, no. You can’t let him take Ethan. Not ever. He killed my sister. I know he did.” Her eyes were enough to send his heart slamming against his rib cage. But he was a sheriff after all. He needed facts, “Don’t you think your…past experiences…might be clouding your judgment, though?” She shook her head, squeezing his hand more tightly. “The heroin was injected. My sister never did drugs in her life. She was running scared and she left her baby. She wouldn’t have done that just so she could go shoot herself up with drugs. She wouldn’t have left Ethan unless she knew she was in danger. Those things alone would convince me, Garrett. But she also had a phobia about needles. She never would have injected anything into her own body. She’d have passed out at the sight of a hypodermic.” Garrett frowned. “Did you tell the Rangers that?” “No. I wasn’t even thinking clearly, and then I came here and…” She released his hand, closed her eyes. “I just left her there. I shouldn’t have done that; I shouldn’t have left my sister there alone.” “There’s a family plot, Chelsea,” Jessi said softly, and Garrett thought she sounded close to tears. “And, well, you and little Ethan, you’re just like family now.” Chelsea opened her eyes with something like awe flooding their green depths. She stared at Jessi, then turned her gaze to each of the others in the room, one by one. And one by one, Elliot, Wes and finally Garrett nodded in agreement. “You’d…you’d let me bring Michele here? Let me…” “It’s a beautiful plot,” Jessi said. “Mamma would approve,” Elliot added. “She’d have said it was right.” Chelsea just shook her head, staring at them as if in disbelief. “I’ll take care of things,” Garrett told her. “We’ll do it quietly. No one besides us need know where Michele is laid to rest. For now, at least.” Chelsea’s eyes grew moist as she scanned the faces in the room. “There is no way to tell you what this means to me…what it would have meant to my sister.” Her gaze settled on Jessi. “Thank you, Jessi. I wish…I wish I could accept. But I can’t.” Jessi frowned, tilting her head. “Michele would want to be near our mother. I’m going to make arrangements to take her back home to New York.” She lifted her gaze to Garrett’s. “I’d like to do it soon. The idea of her spending even one more night in that horrible room…” Her eyes fell closed and she shook her head slowly. Garrett bit his lip to keep his objections to himself. This was no time for Chelsea to be hightailing it back to New York. Deep in his gut, he had a feeling that told him not to let her go. Not now. Maybe not for quite a while. “I think the littlest cowboy on the Texas Brand has fallen asleep,” Wes observed, his voice a bit gruff. He rose awkwardly, moving slow so he wouldn’t disturb the sleeping child in his arms. Jessi rose. “I’ll take him up.” “That’s all right,” Wes said. “I can handle it.” He looked up from the baby, noticed the surprised gazes of his siblings and shrugged. “Passing him around would wake him up, is all.’’ Jessi and Elliot smirked, but Wes ignored them, tip-toeing up the stairs with the infant. Jessi turned to Elliot. “Guess I’ll turn in, too. It’s getting late.’.’ “Late?” Elliot replied. “It’s only-” Jessi kicked his shin and scowled at him. “Oh. Hey, it’s later than I realized,” he amended without a single glance at his watch. “Well, guess I’ll hit the hay, as well. Good night, Chelsea. Garrett.” “Night,” Chelsea replied. Garrett only frowned. Those two rarely took to their beds before the late news, unless they were angry with him for something or other. Or up to no good. They hadn’t been pouting, so he suspected the latter. The question was, what plot were the two villains hatching? “I hope they understand,” Chelsea said softly. Garrett turned to her, stared into her forest green eyes and got lost for just a second. “Don’t worry. They do.” “I should probably call that place tomorrow. Make arrangements to have Michele sent home.” “I could do that for you, if you—’’ “No. No, Michele is my sister. The only family I have…had…except for Ethan. I’ll take care of her.” He nodded, wishing this feeling of foreboding would leave the pit of his stomach. He really didn’t have any legal grounds to keep Chelsea here. None at all. So he supposed he’d have to let her go. The shrill of the telephone cut into his thoughts, and he got slowly to his feet to walk to the kitchen and pick it up. His greeting was cut off, as well, by a deep voice. A level voice. One he didn’t recognize. “The child’s father is Vincent de Lorean. And he knows his son is with you.” “Who is this?” Garrett demanded, his grip tightening on the receiver. “De Lorean wants Chelsea Brennan dead, Brand. She isn’t safe. Not there and not in New York. She is the only person alive who could fight de Lorean for custody of that baby and stand a chance of winning. He wants to eliminate that possibility. He has men watching her apartment. They’ll grab her the second she sets foot there. Do you understand?” “How could he…” “He’s a powerful man, Brand. A dangerous man. Don’t let the woman or the child out of your sight. Not for a second. If you do, he’ll have them both.” “But–” There was a click, then silence. Garrett jiggled the cut-off but to no avail. Finally, he hung up the phone, shaking his head, wondering what the hell he was supposed to do now. “Garrett?” Chelsea came to stand beside him, and she had to know damned well something was wrong. Garrett never had been any good at hiding his feelings. “What is it?” He shook his head. Not for all the world would he tell her anything that would put the ice-cold fear back into those pretty green eyes. He forced a smile. “Nothing, Chelsea. Nothing that can’t wait until morning.” She relaxed a little. Still nervous. But calmer. It hit him that maybe she trusted him just a little bit. He vowed then and there he wouldn’t let her down. She yawned, and his smile became a genuine one. “You’re sleepy. Go on up to bed, Chelsea. I’m gonna do the same myself soon as I lock up for the night.” She nodded, turned to go up the stairs, then stopped and faced him again. “You’ve been good to me and to Ethan,” she said softly. “I owe you for that.” “You don’t owe us a thing, Chelsea.” “I do. I’ll repay you someday.” And she headed up the stairs without another word. “Vincent de Lorean?” Wes shook his head, pacing the kitchen with a cup of coffee in his hand. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon, painting the ranch house’s front windows a pale orange, like candle glow. “None other. Biggest organized-crime figure in the state of Texas. Has ties to the Molinaire syndicate in New York.” “Well, hell, Garrett, we can’t just let her go back there. She’d be walking right into their hands.” “Exactly. The question is, how do I convince her to stay?” “You tell her the truth.” Wes set his half-filled mug on the table and leaned over it, searching his brother’s face. “And see her go back to being terrified again?” “What choice do you have? She’s bound and determined to hop a jet for New York City at the first opportunity. Hell, Garrett, what else can you do?” Garrett frowned. The same question had been nagging at him all night, and he thought he’d come up with some kind of solution. Not an easy one. But maybe the only one. “If I can do some digging, find evidence to tie de Lorean to Michele’s murder, I can put him away, Wes.” “And since when are you some kind of super-cop, big brother? You really think you can do what every cop in the state of Texas, not to mention the FBI, has been trying to do for five years or more? If it was that easy to get the dirt on de Lorean, he’d have been in prison years ago.” “So what would you suggest? Let her go to New York and read about her body being found the next day? Or maybe I tell her all this, and she takes off like a scared rabbit, goes into hiding somewhere with Ethan. How far did that kind of plan get her sister?” Wes lowered his head and sighed. “Okay. Okay. When you’re right, you’re right. But while you dig up dirt on de Lorean, you have to find a way to keep Chelsea Brennan right here, where we can protect her from that bastard. What brilliant plan have you come up with to accomplish that?” “Nothing.” Garrett shook his head, feeling panic well up in his gut…again. “It’s simple.” Jessi stepped in from the dining room, and Garrett started in surprise. “Dammit, Jes, did you ever hear of a private conversation?” “No such thing as privacy in this family.” She walked to the coffeepot, took a mug from the tree and filled it. When Elliot came in after her, Garrett stifled a groan. “Great. This is just great.” “You oughtta be glad we overheard you, brother,” Elliot quipped, pulling out a chair and lowering his lanky body into it. “Sounded like you were fresh out of ideas.” “Oh, and I suppose you two have the perfect solution?” “Sure we do.” Jessi added sugar to her coffee and stirred slowly, her eyes twinkling. “If you want Chelsea to stay with us, Garrett, all you have to do is give her a reason.” Garrett rolled his eyes. “Now why didn’t I think of that?” “Don’t be sarcastic,” Jessi said. “Garrett, maybe you haven’t noticed, but Chelsea Brennan likes you.” “She likes all of us, Jes–” “No. I mean, she really likes you.” Garrett went as still as stone as his little sister’s meaning sank in. Then he battled an urge to strangle her. “Don’t be stupid.” Jessi pouted. Elliot stretched his legs, leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. “Garrett Brand, you are one dense cowboy if you think Jessi’s wrong about this. Hell, I didn’t see Chelsea wrapped up in Wes’s arms last night. Nor mine, either, for that matter. It was you she was clinging to while she cried.” Garrett felt his jaw drop and his eyes widen. “You–” “Now, Garrett, we weren’t snooping. Just coming in from the barn, and there you were, big as life, hugging the stuffin’ outta that little lady.” “You got it all wrong!” Garrett walked away from them, pushing his hands through his hair. “Dammit, she was upset, is all–” “It was more than that, Garrett.” Jessi came up behind him, put her hands on his shoulders. “Women know about these things. She’s soft on you, I can tell.” “That’s gotta be the most ridiculous…. Why would she…? I don’t….” He gave up trying to speak, because words just plain deserted him. Confusion took over instead, and he turned a questioning gaze on Wes. Wes shrugged. “They have a point. Look, Garrett, nobody’s saying you gotta go cow-eyed over the woman. But maybe if you just sweet-talked her a little–” “I can’t believe you guys!” Garrett spun around, ready to tell them all how ridiculous the very notion was–and saw Chelsea just coming into the kitchen. Her hair was all tousled and her big green eyes were sleepy. When she looked at him, she smiled softly, and Garrett’s big heart flipped upside down and began to fill with a kind of panic he’d never felt in his whole damned life. “Good morning,” she said, her voice deep and rusty. Garrett mouthed “mornin”‘ but no sound came out. He cleared his throat and tried again. “You’re just in time,” Jessi said, grinning from ear to ear. “We were just saying how rude we’ve been. Why, we haven’t even shown you around the ranch yet. And it’s really something to see.” Chelsea’s auburn brows rose. “Do you ride?” Elliot asked her. Garrett held his breath. “No,” she replied, and Garrett sighed in relief. “But I’ve always wanted to try.” His heart performed some more acrobatics he hadn’t realized it was capable of. “Good for you,” Elliot all but shouted. “Garrett rides the fence lines every morning to check things out. Perfect chance for you to try your seat. Isn’t it, Garrett?” “She can take Sugar. Oh, Chelsea, you’ll love her. She’s the most gentle mare on the place.” Jessi’s excitement was bubbling from her pores. “Wes, why don’t you go saddle Sugar for Chelsea?” Chelsea, too, seemed a bit caught up in their enthusiasm. But when she looked at Garrett, the smile left her face. “I really ought to stay here with Ethan,” she said. “Nah. Jessi can take charge of that little pistol for a while. I’ll handle her chores for her,” Elliot offered. Garrett nearly choked. Elliot, offering to do extra chores? Chelsea’s eyes were still on him, and he squirmed. “It’s okay. Really. I don’t want to impose on your morning ride.” He lowered his head, feeling like a real snake. “No,” he finally managed. “No, Chelsea, I’d really like you to come along.” “Really?” When he looked into her eyes, he realized, a little slowly perhaps, that it was true. He would enjoy her company. “Yeah, really.” She smiled fully, almost blinding him. “Come on upstairs, Chelsea,” Jessi said, gripping Chelsea’s arm and turning her around. “You need some jeans, and I have some that ought to fit you just fine. Might have to roll up the legs a little, but…oh, and some boots, too.” Looking back over her shoulder, she sent Garrett a broad wink. “We’ll be ready in ten minutes. Promise!” When they disappeared up the stairs, Garrett pressed his fingertips to his forehead and groaned. “Oh, come on, Garrett,” Wes urged. “It isn’t the end of the world.” “You can do this, big brother,” Elliot added, a smug grin tugging at his lips, one he didn’t try very hard to suppress. “And if you need any pointers on romancing a woman, you just come to me, okay?” Garrett scowled at him, but Elliot and Wes just shared a laugh and headed out the door. Chapter 8 The jeans were a bit long, but rolled up they were a fair fit. The boots were perfect. She and Jessi were both size seven, so their fit was comfy. Jessi had tossed in a rather tight-fitting tank top and a flannel shirt, insisting it would be hot by the time Chelsea returned, and she’d be glad to have the thin top underneath. When Chelsea stepped out onto the front porch, two horses stood saddled and waiting. The gigantic dappled gray one she’d heard Garrett call Duke, and a smaller white mare with a handful of black spots on her rump, who had to be Sugar. Garrett stood beside the horses, his big hand stroking Sugar’s neck. He looked up at Chelsea, smiled a welcome, but she still had the niggling suspicion this little outing hadn’t been his idea. And that he was less than happy about it. She eyed the white horse, and her nerves jangled to life. “Don’t be scared, Chelsea. She’s as gentle as a kitten. Come here.” He held out a hand. Chelsea went down the front steps and took it. When Garrett closed his fingers around her hand, he stilled for a second, staring down at their clasped hands as if in surprise. He drew her closer to the animal, laid her hand gently on the mare’s neck, where his had been only seconds ago. Chelsea stroked the animal’s sleek neck and smiled. “She’s beautiful.” “So are you.” She looked up quickly, only to see Garrett avert his face and pretend to tighten the girth straps. “Now,” he said, turning to face her again, “take hold of the pommel.” Licking her lips, she did. “Put your foot in the stirrup.” She drew a breath and followed his instructions. “Now swing your other leg over.” She nodded and pulled herself up. But the horse was tall, and she lost her momentum before she got her leg all the way over. Garrett’s hands closed on her bottom, pushing her up, giving her enough of a lift to boost her into the saddle. She felt her cheeks burn and couldn’t look at him. “Sorry,” he muttered, handing her the reins. He walked around the mare, checking to be sure Chelsea had her foot firmly in the stirrup on the other side, then mounted his own horse in a move so smooth and effortless that watching him made her feel like a klutz. He held the reins loosely in one hand, and she imitated him. “Ready?” She nodded once, then Garrett turned his horse and started across the lawn. Sugar didn’t need Chelsea to tell her what to do. She turned, as well, and walked slow and easy beside Duke. They approached an open gate, and Wes, who was standing nearby, closed it behind them after they moved through. “Squeeze your thighs around her, Chelsea,” Garrett instructed, looking at her dangling legs. She squeezed, and Sugar shot forward into a trot, causing Chelsea to bounce up and down until her teeth rattled. Garrett caught up to her within a few seconds, grabbed the reins and tugged gently. Sugar came to a halt. “What did I do?” Chelsea asked, breathless. “Dug your heels into her side. Just squeeze gently with your knees. You dig those heels in, she thinks you want to run.” Chelsea tried again, and this time the horse didn’t take off. Garrett handed the reins back to her, his hand brushing hers as she took them. They started off again, side by side, and she knew he was going much more slowly than he probably would if he were alone. They rode into rolling green meadows, and soon she saw the curly coats of the white-faced Herefords dotting the grass in the distance. As they drew nearer, she saw calves running and jumping like children, and docile cows chewing lazily as if they hadn’t a care in the world. “They’re something, aren’t they?” Garrett remarked, drawing to a halt at a spot where they could look out over part of the herd. Imitating Garrett again, Chelsea reined in her mount and followed his gaze. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that…peaceful.” It was true. Sitting here astride this gentle mare, beside this gentle man, with this gentle scene spread out before her, she felt that peace begin to fill her. This was a good place, this Texas Brand. A magical place. The vivid blue sky stretched wider than she’d ever seen it. And the sun beat down just as Jessi had predicted it would. Heat poured through her flannel shirt, and her skin dampened and prickled. Very carefully, she shrugged the shirt off one arm, but only got it partway down her shoulder before the horse danced a little, and she had to make a grab for the pommel. “I…uh…” Garrett’s horse sidled closer to hers. “I can get that.” He reached out with one hand and pushed the shirt down her arm. She let go so he could tug it off, then held on with her other hand as Garrett’s big, callused one pushed the shirt down from her opposite shoulder. His palm skimmed her arm all the way down, and she shivered. She closed her eyes without quite realizing she was doing so. She sensed him taking the shirt, and when she opened her eyes, she saw him staring at her. There was something in his gaze. Something new…and a little scary. He blinked it away, tucking the shirt in front of him on the saddle, then nudged his horse into motion once more. For an hour, they rode in silence, and Chelsea took in the beauty and tranquility of the surroundings. The only sounds were the steady tromping of the horses’ hooves, the creak of saddle leather, and once in a while, the gentle blowing sound made by the horses. Garrett tugged Duke to a stop when they came to a small stream with a couple of trees on the far bank. He dismounted in one smooth motion and came to her side. “Better take a break,” he said. “Oh, but I’m fine.” He smiled, a big lopsided smile that made her stomach clench tight. “You think you’re fine. But believe me, you’re working muscles you didn’t know you had. Come on, get down for a few minutes.” She nodded. “Okay, you’re the expert.” She braced one foot in the stirrup and tried to swing off the way he’d done. But Sugar sidestepped and she felt herself falling. Then two big hands curled around her waist from behind, lifting her gently, easily down. Her backside brushed over the front of him as he lowered her, and a shiver worked right up her spine. When her feet touched down, he didn’t let go. Instead, his hands remained at her waist, holding her back against his body for a long moment. “Damn,” he whispered, and finally his hands fell away. She turned around and stared up into his eyes. Dark brown, gentle eyes that held hers captive. “Damn,” he said again. “Why do you keep saying that?” He closed his eyes, breaking that tenuous hold, but only briefly. “Because I know you don’t like being touched…and right now….” He shook his head in self-disgust. “I’m not good at this kind of thing, Chelsea. I don’t know the kinds of pretty words that make women go soft inside. I’m a simple man, and I’m accustomed to just saying what’s on my mind, straight out.” “So say it,” she whispered, and her voice trembled, and fear danced in her veins. She felt more alive than she ever had. “I want to kiss you.’’ She looked into his eyes, then at the expanse of green around them. They were alone here. But for some reason, she wasn’t afraid. She’d never known a man as gentle as Garrett Brand. Not ever. She tipped up her head and moved closer. “Then…go ahead and kiss me,” she said, her words full of false bravado, but wavering all the same. Garrett bent his head and touched his lips to hers. He didn’t put his hands on her. He just kissed her slowly and gently, then lifted his head and searched her face. “Again?” he murmured. “Yes. Again.” This time his arms came up around her waist, his hands spanning the small of her back and easing her close to him. He kissed her again, nuzzling her lips until she parted them, then tracing their shape with his tongue. Chelsea’s pulse raced and nameless feelings swamped her mind. She put her hands on Garrett’s broad shoulders and slipped them around him until her fingers tangled in his hair. She opened her mouth wider, ready now to experience more of this heady thing between them. Her heart pounded in her ears. Louder and louder, and when his tongue slowly slipped inside, it seemed the very ground under her feet trembled with– He jerked away from her, eyes wide with alarm. And he swore. “Garrett? Did I–” “Stampede!” His cry shocked her…then terrified her when its meaning became clear. She looked, and saw masses of frightened beasts churning the dust toward them. And even as Garrett reached for the horses, they bolted, wild-eyed, feet flying. Garrett’s arm snagged her around the waist, propelling her forward. He shouted something at her, but the thundering hoofbeats of the cattle drowned out even his booming voice. As they splashed across the icy stream, she could smell the terrified cattle. Then her body was thrust against the trunk of a tree, and Garrett’s ground tightly to her from behind, pinning her there. The animals were upon them, knocking into them on both sides, brushing, pushing. She felt Garrett’s body being torn away from her and she turned to see, but couldn’t. Then she heard a shout and saw a horse at full gallop, pressing through the rampaging cows. A man she’d never seen before sat tall on a sable-colored, wide-eyed stallion. She watched as he bent low, reached down and pulled Garrett up. Garrett seemed to spring from the ground and onto the back of that horse. His gaze was glued to the tree as the cattle flew past, and Chelsea clung to it with all her might as their bodies jostled hers. But one hit her too hard, and her palms scraped painfully over the rough bark as she fought to hold on. Her back bit the ground hard, and she automatically curled into-a ball, covering her face with her arms as her body was pummeled again and again. It felt as if several strong men were surrounding her, hitting her with hammers. The blows stopped at last. Then the thunder slowly died away. And all that remained was the blackened earth and torn grass and the sound of her own heart beating more loudly than those hooves had done. She uncurled cautiously, every movement hurting. The rider came forward. Garrett leaped from the horse and ran to her, dropping to his knees beside her. His hands gripped her shoulders, pulled her close to his big chest. She could feel the pounding of his heart there, hear the raspy rush of his quickened breaths. “Chelsea, dammit, are you all right?” He held her so hard, so tight, she could barely breathe. He eased back a little when she didn’t answer. Brown eyes flooded with worry scanned her body. His shirt was torn, one arm dripping blood, and there was another ugly cut high on his cheekbone. She lifted a hand toward him. “You’re hurt.” She heard galloping and jerked her head around, only to see Elliot and Wes approaching at top speed. “The hell with me! What about you? Damn, Chelsea, when I saw you fall–” “I’m all right.” She put her hands on his shoulders and pushed herself to her feet. She hurt. She hurt everywhere, but she didn’t think anything was broken. At least her arms and hands and legs and feet seemed to be in working order. Elliot and Wes had jumped from their horses and were running toward them now. There was real fear in their eyes when they reached their brother. “Garrett, are you okay?” “What the hell happened?” Garrett shook his head slowly, but his brown eyes narrowed dangerously as they found those of the stranger. “Something…or someone…spooked the cattle. Chelsea could have been killed.” The stranger said nothing. Just sat on that horse, holding Garrett’s accusing stare. He was dark and whip-cord lean, his face narrow and hard, with piercing pale blue eyes that even now seemed deathly calm. As Chelsea stared at him, something fluttered to the ground from his shirt pocket. A small slip of paper. She pointed at it and started to tell him, but Garrett’s angry voice made her go utterly still. “Who the hell are you, mister?” “Name’s Lash,” he replied, his face every bit as grim as Garrett’s. “It wasn’t him, Garrett,” Elliot said quickly. “He was with us.” Garrett gave Elliot a brief glance, then turned a questioning one on Wes. “Elliot’s right. Lash drove in right after you two left. Said he was looking for work. Since we’re shorthanded, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea, and he was in a hurry to see you, so we saddled up and rode out here to run it by you.” “And it’s a damned good thing we did, Garrett,” Elliot added. “If Lash hadn’t cut through that mess of frantic beefers to pull you up, you’d be hamburger.” “He saw you go down,” Wes added. “We didn’t.” Garrett heaved a thoughtful sigh, but his eyes remained wary. He walked over to the stranger, who’d dismounted by this time, and offered his hand. “Seems I’m indebted to you.” The man shook Garrett’s hand. “You can repay me by hiring me on.” Garrett scowled. “Wish I could, friend, but this is a bad time–” “Garrett, we could use the help.” Garrett turned to Elliot with a look that clearly told him to shut up. Elliot pursed his lips. “Hell, I’ll go see if I can round up the horses.” He headed for his own horse, jumped back into the saddle, wheeled around and rode off, leaving no one in any doubt as to his opinion of Garrett’s decision.. Chelsea wondered why Garrett would be so distrustful of the man who’d probably saved his life. She knew Elliot was right. How many times had she heard them talking about how shorthanded they were right now? “Like I said, it’s a bad time,” Garrett repeated, turning back to the stranger. “I’m a good hand,” Lash returned easily. “But if it’s a bad time, it’s a bad time.” He shrugged as if he could care less. “You want some help herding those cattle back where they belong?” “We can handle it.” “I got nowhere to go.” Garrett frowned. It wasn’t like him to be rude, though Chelsea assumed that nearly being trampled to death would make even a saint grouchy. “Fine. Ride along if you want.” Elliot was riding toward them now, flanked by Duke and Sugar. Garrett returned to Chelsea and lifted a tender hand to push her hair away from her face. “You sure you’re okay?” “A few bruises, I think. Nothing serious.” “You up to the ride back to the house?” She swallowed hard, but nodded. How else was she going to get back? “The hell you are,” he muttered. Elliot jumped off his horse and led the other two mounts over to Garrett and Chelsea. “Garrett, why don’t you take her back? The three of us can handle the cows. They’ve stopped running already. Tore through the north fence line, though. We’ll drive ‘em back in, repair the fence and meet you later at the house in time for lunch. All right?” Garrett looked torn. For some reason, he didn’t want to leave his brothers out here alone. Was he worried about the jumpy cows? From the wary look in his eyes, Chelsea thought his concern lay elsewhere. With the stranger. Why? He glanced at Chelsea again. “I can make it back on my own, Garrett. You don’t have to–” “No. Not alone.” His forefinger lazily brushed her cheek, and she wondered if there was a bruise forming there already. It felt as if there was. “I’ll take you back.” He went over to Wes, who stood a bit away from the rest of them, just watching them all with those sharp, probing black eyes of his. Wes inclined his head as Garrett spoke softly. Then nodded. Lash, meanwhile, had ridden over to Elliot and was conversing with him. The slip of paper blew closer to Chelsea’s feet, and she bent to pick it up, turning toward the stranger. But Garrett came back to her at that moment, and without warning, he put his arms around her and scooped her right off her feet. He settled her in Duke’s saddle, then swung up behind her. One arm came snugly around, her waist. He touched the stallion’s sides, and the horse took off at a brisk walk, back the way they’d come. Chelsea sighed in resignation and glanced at the name and address on the scrap of paper before stuffing it into her jeans pocket and vowing to return it to its owner later on. Cattle did not stand around chewing peacefully one minute, then stampede the next. Garrett knew that. He’d only witnessed one stampede in his life and he’d been in the ranching business forever. It was rare. It didn’t just happen. Something had spooked those cattle. And spooked them in the direction he and Chelsea had taken. Garrett couldn’t convince himself it was a coincidence. Especially after that odd phone call last night. And that the appearance of this stranger–this Lash–at the same time could just be happenstance was too much to swallow. Somebody wanted Chelsea Brennan dead. The voice on the phone had identified that somebody as Vincent de Lorean, a man as evil as Satan himself. And then she’d nearly been trampled to death. All within twenty-four hours. No way could he have let her return to the house alone. And he couldn’t trust her safety to his brothers. He had to see to it himself. Much as he disliked leaving Elliot and Wes out there with a stranger who might or might not be involved in all this, he’d had little choice. So he’d warned Wes about his suspicions. Wes could handle himself. Hell, Wes could handle himself and any six fighting men. He’d be all right. Duke gave a little leap when he came out of the stream and started up the slight incline of the bank. Chelsea’s bottom bounced down on the saddle, and she gave a little squeak of pain. Dammit, she was hurt, much as she might deny it. “Don’t sit so stiff,” he instructed. “Just relax against me, and it won’t hurt so much.” He punctuated his advice by pulling her back closer to his chest. Her buttocks rocked between his legs, rubbing him in all the right places. Dammit, he should have left well enough alone. No, he shouldn’t. She leaned her head back against him. Oh, did he like that. He opened his palm on her belly. His hand itched to creep up higher. To cup her soft breasts, and squeeze them. His lips itched to kiss her. Her smooth-skinned neck was looking more tempting with every step Duke took. “Why were you so suspicious of that man?” she asked softly. Garrett clenched his jaw. He hadn’t meant to be so obvious. The last thing he wanted was for her to think that the stampede had been an attempt on her life. He was afraid that knowledge would send her running scared. And if she ran, how the hell could he protect her? “I don’t like strangers nosing around,” he tried. “You took me in. Let me stay. I’m a stranger.” Garrett never had been any good at subterfuge. “You’re a sight prettier than Lash is.” “Be honest with me, Garrett.” As she said it, she turned her head so she could look up into his eyes. Her green ones searched and dug into his. Into his heart, too. “I am being honest. You really are prettier.” She frowned at him. “Okay,” he said slowly, wondering how little he could get away with revealing. “We want it kept quiet that you’re here, right? Why broadcast it to some drifter?” She nodded, licked her lips. He ached to do the same. “So you really think Ethan’s father will come after him if he finds out where we are?” “He might. But–” Garrett cut himself off in mid-sentence as he was sharply, painfully reminded of Vincent de Lorean’s other objective. His son. And Bubba was currently alone in the house with Jessi. He tightened his grip on Chelsea. “Sorry about this, darlin’. Hold on.” He kicked Duke’s sides, and the horse obeyed instantly, beginning to gallop at a speed Garrett hoped wouldn’t send more spasms of pain through Chelsea’s slender, bruised body. When he jumped off Duke’s back and ran up the front steps, leaving Chelsea sitting alone on a horse the size of a small elephant, she mentally cussed him. But he only made it as far as the screen door. One look inside and his frown lines eased into a smile. “Everything okay here, Jessi?” “Sure. Fine. Why wouldn’t it be?” “No reason.” Garrett turned around, smiling. But his smile died when he saw Chelsea glaring at him from the saddle. “Sorry,” he muttered, and came back to her, put his hands on her waist and lifted her down. She shook her head. “You’re crazy, Garrett Brand. What were you trying to do, making that mastodon run with me on his back? Kill me?’’ “Course not. Hey, I just got worried about Jess and Bubba, is all.” “His name is Ethan, you big lug.” He opened his mouth. “And why would you suddenly get so worried that you had to race all the way back here and scramble my insides in the process?” She poked him with a forefinger. “You are keeping something from me. Something about that stampede, and that stranger, and–” “Stampede?” The screen door squeaked and Jessi stepped outside, Ethan anchored on her hip. “What stampede?” “The one that almost killed us,” Chelsea replied, still glaring at Garrett. “Now, it wasn’t that bad. Don’t look like that, Jessi. Everything’s fine. No one was hurt.” Jessi’s gaze dipped to Garrett’s torn and bloodied shirtsleeve. “Liar. Look at you! And you, too, Chelsea! What in all hell happened out there?” “Watch your mouth,” Garrett told her. “I will not watch my mouth.” She pouted, then shook her head. “Ah, get in here, both of you, and let me have a look. And while I’m looking, Garrett Ethan Brand, you better tell me what this is all about!” She spun around and slammed back into the house. Chelsea took the first step, but Garrett gripped her shoulder gently, stopping her. “Wait.” She sighed, but turned to face him. “Before all that craziness out there, Chelsea…something was…happening…between you and me.” She lowered her head. Something had been happening. Something that had been dizzying and wonderful at the time. But in hindsight, it scared the hell out of her. “It’s just as well we were interrupted,” she whispered, but the words were coming hard. “I have to disagree with you there.” She forced her head up and tried to hold on to his gaze, but couldn’t. She had to look away again. “I’m not ready for anything like this. I don’t want anything like this.” “Like what? Hell, Chelsea, I’m still trying to figure out what this is.” “It doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t have happened, and it’s over. Let’s just forget about it.” “I’m not real sure I can do that. Forget it, I mean.” He searched her face, trying to smile, but it was bitter, and she thought maybe she’d hurt this big, gentle man. But she barely knew him, after all. His gentleness could fade as fast as the sun when a storm cloud rolls in. He could turn out to be as dangerous as her father had been. And she’d decided a long time ago that she would never trust any man long enough to find out. She would never fall in love. Besides, just because this man was physically attracted to her didn’t mean he felt anything for her, so she was way ahead of herself anyway. “It will be easier once Ethan and I are gone,” she said. His lips thinned. He seemed a little desperate and maybe at a loss for words. “I don’t….” “What?” He lowered his head. “I don’t want you to go, Chelsea.” She stared at him in surprise and more than a little confusion. What was he saying? He barely knew her, had only kissed her once, for God’s sake. Well, okay, twice. How could he stand there and say– “Will you two get in here already?” Jessi called. “What do you mean, you don’t want me to go? What do you want me to do, quit my job, give up my apartment and stay here? For a fling, Garrett? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I don’t do flings.” She turned away and marched up the steps and across the porch. But as she went, she heard his voice following her. “Neither do I, Chelsea Brennan. Neither do I.” Chapter 9 Maybe one of those stupid cows had stomped on her head. That must be it. Maybe she had a concussion or brain damage or something. Or maybe Garrett did. Because she could have sworn the man she’d actually begun to see as some kind of big, honorable, gentle-as-a-teddy bear kind of guy had just propositioned her. Suggested she hang out at the ranch for a while, his meaning glimmering clearly in those formerly harmless brown eyes. He wanted her, the jerk. And he thought she was willing to put out. All on the basis of a couple of innocent kisses! Man, his ego must be as big as he was! She tried to hurry through the kitchen and dining room, straight on into the living room and up the stairway, but winced with every single step. It hurt, dammit. Him and his hormones! She should have known all along he only had one thing on his mind. Why hadn’t she seen it coming? He’d probably only stopped the stupid horses so he could paw her, not so she could rest. And it was only just now occurring to her how utterly stupid she’d been to go along on that ride in the first place. Putting herself out of sight and shouting distance of anyone. Putting herself alone within reach of a man. Even this man. Because they were all the same underneath. Hadn’t she learned anything? A hot bath, she thought as she started up the stairs. It hurt to flex her thighs, and she grimaced. A long, hot bath. She tried envisioning it to get her up the next step. Her back screamed in protest. Steam, rolling off the water, she thought determinedly. Scented water. Hot, steamy, scented water and– She sucked air through her teeth at a new jab in her side. “Dammit!” Big, strong arms swept under her, lifting her like a knight lifting a damsel in a fairy tale. Well, she was no damsel, and this horny lug was no knight. There were no such things as knights. Not even in Texas. “Put me down.” “Not on your life, lady. Don’t worry. I won’t trouble you with my presence any longer than it takes to drop you on your bed.” “Drop me at my door, Hulk. I don’t trust you anywhere near my bed.” Garrett took the stairs at a brisk pace. “I didn’t say I wanted to sleep with you, woman.” “You want me to stay for what, then? My sparkling wit? My charm and sweetness?” “What sweetness? You’re as sour as a barrel of pickles.” He set her on her feet, opened the bedroom door and waved a hand. “We’ll talk about this later.” “I won’t be here later.” “Fine.” “Fine.” She slammed the door. Leaning shakily against it, she closed her eyes hard in an effort to fight the fragile whisper of doubt that flitted through her mind, trying to make her wonder if maybe she’d jumped to the wrong conclusions about Garrett. But, hell, he’d been so uncharacteristically sweet–for a male–to her ever since she’d arrived. And now that she thought she knew the reason–that he was hoping for some easy sex–it made perfect sense. Didn’t it? She groaned softly and hoped to God she was right. If she wasn’t, she’d just made a total fool out of herself. She walked into the little bathroom, depressed the tub’s plunger and turned on the hot water. They’d moved her into the guest room where the baby had taken up residence, apparently having decided she could be trusted around her own flesh and blood. As the water flowed into the bath, Chelsea remembered the way Garrett had looked in here yesterday, shirtless, soaking wet and grinning like a fool as he bathed little Ethan. And she tried to think of why he’d been so nice to the baby. What could he be hoping to get out of him? Nothing, of course. And it couldn’t have been to impress Chelsea because he hadn’t known she’d be watching. How could he have known? God, could it be the man was just genuinely nice? Nah. Chelsea stripped off her clothes and sank into the bathtub, resting against the cool porcelain as the hot water slowly rose around her. “Well, Jessi, so much for that stupid scheme you and Elliot came up with!” Garrett slapped his dusty hat onto the back of a chair. His little sister set Bubba down and promptly knocked Garrett into the same chair. “Sit still so I can look at this.” She tore his shirtsleeve off, grimacing. “This is nasty, Garrett.” “It’s nasty all right. I told her I wanted her to stay. Now she thinks I’m some kind of sex maniac.” Jessi pressed her lips tight, but a gurgle of laughter managed to escape anyway. She turned quickly to the sink, taking a clean cloth from a nearby drawer and wetting it down. “Oh, yeah, you think you’re so smart.” “Well, jeez Louise, Garrett, you can’t just blurt it out like that. You gotta build up to it. Give her some time.” “I don’t have any damned time. She wants to leave today, for crying out loud!” Jessi came over and pressed the damp cloth to the cut on his shoulder. “Sounds like that would really bother you.” “Only because it might get her killed.” Jessi’s hands stilled on his shoulder. “Killed?” “Vincent de Lorean would do anything to get his child back,” he said grimly, “including murder.” Jessi’s eyes opened wider. “God Almighty, Garrett, we can’t let him!” “No, we sure as hell can’t. And we won’t. We just have to convince Chelsea to stay put until I can figure out how.” “Guess you’ll just have to sweep her off her feet.” He grunted. Then he stilled, searching her face. His little sister was dead serious here. “Tell her she can’t leave until tomorrow, Garrett. Make something up. Tell her the flights out today are all booked. Anything. Then, tonight–” “Tonight she isn’t speaking to me.” “Tonight you’ll give her an evenin’ she’ll never forget.” Garrett shook his head. But his sister’s eyes were sparkling, and he had a feeling he wasn’t going to have much say in the matter. “Now, about this stampede….” she began as if it was all settled. Sure. Just leave it to Jessi. She’d take care of everything. God help him now. Dinner was a strained affair. Garrett was damned near squirming in his chair when he thought about what he had to do tonight. He wasn’t eating with the others. Just sitting here for the company and the conversation, really. He’d eat later. Jessi had worked it all out. And there was this whole other matter to contend with. Lash. Elliot had been raving about how terrific the man had been with the spooked cattle. Even Wes had grudgingly admitted the guy knew his stuff. The damage to the fences had been worse than Elliot had realized, so the three had only come in briefly for a quick sandwich and then headed right out again. Elliot couldn’t stop talking about Lash and his way with the cattle. Even Jessi seemed impressed. She’d gone oddly quiet and suddenly learned some table manners. She was smiling more than usual, too. Lash looked at her as if he was looking at a little kid, which was yet another mark in his favor. Hell, Garrett would have hired the stranger in a minute under any other circumstances. But with the threat of danger hanging over all their heads, he didn’t think he could afford to trust a stranger. Even one who’d saved his life. Maybe later, after all this was worked out and Chelsea was safe. Chelsea. She hadn’t come down for dinner. She’d said she’d rather skip the meal and go to bed early. He hoped that was because she was mad at him and not that she actually wanted to go to bed early. Because that was certainly not what she was going to get. Chelsea wore an oversize T-shirt she’d snatched from the clothesline out back in response to the sweltering heat outside. She’d have preferred to remain wet and wear nothing at all, but there were simply too many males in this house. So she closed the bedroom door firmly and lay in the bed in the T-shirt, with the window wide open. She tried to rest, but she couldn’t get comfortable no matter which way she turned. Everything hurt. She couldn’t relax, either, because she kept expecting someone to come through that door to put little Ethan to bed. It was late before she heard the hum of vehicles rumbling away. A few minutes later came footfalls on the stairs, then the knob turned and the door opened. Garrett Brand stood in the doorway with his hat in his hands. “You awake?” “Yeah.” He came the rest of the way inside, flicking on the light as he did. “We need to talk.” “You think so?” “Yup.” He nodded to a chair near the dressing table. “Mind if I sit?” “It’s your house.” He pulled the chair close to the bedside, sat down slowly, then frowned, his gaze fixed on her bare thigh. She felt her blood rush a little more loudly in her ears. Then she followed his gaze and saw the vivid purple bruise and realized his look wasn’t lecherous. “I thought you said you didn’t get hurt.” “It looks worse than it feels.” He got to his feet, headed out of the bedroom and returned within five seconds carrying a white plastic jar with a black lid. He didn’t settle back in his chair again. Instead, he lowered his bulk to the edge of the bed, and Chelsea battled the urge to brace her feet against him and give a good shove. He twisted the cap off the jar and scooped out a gob of ugly brown stuff with his fingers. She caught a whiff of it then and wrinkled her nose. “What is that? It stinks.” “Liniment. Jessi made it up for the horses.” “The horses?” “Yeah. They get stiff sometimes, go lame. It’s good stuff. Trust me. Jessi’s studying veterinary medicine, you know.” “I trust you about as far as I can throw you,” she said. And when he set the jar aside and moved his handful of goo toward her thigh, she pulled her leg away. “Wait a minute! You’re not putting any horse liniment on me.” He met her eyes, and his held a definite twinkle. “Just lie still. It’ll make you feel better.” She had a feeling this was a form of petty revenge for her determined low opinion of him. But she decided it might not be, and that maybe it was worth the risk. Anything was better than the way she ached right now. He put his fingers on her thigh and gently rubbed some of the stuff onto the purple bruise. And though it should have hurt just to be touched there, it didn’t. The ointment–or was it his fingers?–spread warmth over her flesh. Warmth that seemed to penetrate and slowly sink into her. “Better already, isn’t it?” She released the breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding and relaxed back on the pillows. “Yeah. It is.” “I told you.” He scooped out more gunk and leaned over to her other leg, this time massaging the stuff onto the sore spot on her shin. Chelsea closed her eyes. Then his other hand slid behind her knee, lifting it until it bent upward. He started to rub some more of the liniment into the back of her calf, where some nasty cow had pinned it between a hard hoof and the ground. An involuntary sigh escaped her. She bit her lip when she heard it, but it was too late. “Where else?” he asked. Her eyes flew open. “Lift up the T-shirt, Chelsea.” “Not in your wildest dreams, cowboy.” His lips thinned. “You really think I’m gonna try something, don’t you?” She didn’t answer, just looked into his eyes. But she saw nothing there to frighten her, or give her cause to mistrust him. “I’m only trying to help you. You’re hurting and I want to make it better.” He shook his head, studying the brown gob on his fingertips. “Hell, maybe I am out of line. Taking care of people just…well, it’s sort of ingrained in my bones, you know? Got so used to doin’ it for the kids-” “The kids?” “Wes, Adam, Ben, Elliot…and Jessi. Especially Jessi.” She swallowed hard; he’d reminded her of who he was. The man who’d raised five children and kept a ranch going single-handedly after his parents had been killed. The man who treated a little old lady in town like the queen of Spain and even worried about her cat. The man who’d taken little Ethan in when it would have been just as easy to turn him over to the local social services. And who had sheltered her from the battering heads and hooves of a horde of crazed animals—sheltered her with his own body. Did she really believe he was anything like her father? “You were holding your back before. I just thought….” His words trailed into silence as Chelsea stared at him, probing his eyes for answers, finding only more questions. She chewed on her lower lip for a moment, then nodded once. She rolled onto her stomach and lifted the T-shirt above her waist. “Damn, Chelsea, you look like you’ve been beat with a club.” “I feel like it, too.” His fingers touched her then. Warm. Soothing. He rubbed the stuff into her lower back, and it felt good. Maybe a little bit too good. When he stopped, she started to lower the shirt, but he covered her hand with his. “Shhb. Just be still.” He began touching her once more, sliding one hand higher as he lifted her T-shirt with the other. He rubbed the ointment over both her shoulder blades and then the spot between them. She closed her eyes again, wondering if anything in her life had ever felt this soothing. She’d never been touched this way before. She’d never expected a man’s touch could be anything but hurtful and cruel. But Garrett’s was gentle and healing and good. He lowered the shirt down her back again. Chelsea rolled over, wincing as the gooey ointment stuck to the material. “I’m ruining someone’s T-shirt with this stuff,” she said. She felt she had to say something, and that seemed like something safe. “That’s okay. I have others.” She blinked. “It’s yours?” His eyebrows rose. “Who else around here would need an extra-extra large?” Her throat went dry. Why? What was so intimate about wearing Garrett’s T-shirt? Why did she suddenly feel as if it was him wrapped around her, instead of just a piece of white cotton? “What about your front?” But he was pushing the shirt up carefully and slowly. She didn’t grab it and yank it back down. She waited, almost unable to breathe, telling herself this would be the proof she needed of what kind of man he truly was. When he yanked it up to her neck and tried to grope her breasts, she’d have no more room for doubt. And then…. He stopped, letting the shirt rest below her breasts. And though there was a definite yearning in his eyes as he gazed down at her bared waist, he didn’t grope. He didn’t make any lewd remarks. He didn’t smirk. “Your ribs are bruised to hell and gone. Damn, Chelsea, maybe we oughtta drive into El Paso and get you some x-rays.” She shook her head. “Nothing’s broken.” “You sure? Would you even know what a broken bone felt like? I mean, if you’ve never—” “I’ve had plenty of broken bones, Garrett. I know what they feel like.” “You…?” He stopped without finishing the question, but it was in his eyes as they met hers, searching. “Yeah. A wrist once. A couple of ribs another time. And then there was the collarbone.” He swallowed so hard she saw the way his Adam’s apple swelled and receded like a wave moving under his skin. “Your father?” The words were like a croak. She only nodded. Garrett closed his deep brown eyes very tight. “It’s okay,” she said. “I survived it in one piece.” He opened his eyes, facing her, shaking his head. “But you didn’t, Chelsea. You think every man who cares for you is gonna hurt you somehow, and that just isn’t true.” “Isn’t it? I don’t know, Garrett. I think believing that is what got my sister killed.” He sighed long and deep, but said nothing more. Instead, he looked again at her exposed skin and resumed the process of smoothing ointment over her bruises. His fingers trembled a little. But he finished, wiped his fingers on a rag and recapped the jar. “I have something that needs saying,” he told her. “And I want you to listen and not think about your father or about your sister, if you can manage it. Just think about me and about you, okay?” She nodded, but felt suspicion welling up in her heart. Garrett cleared his throat. “When I said I wanted you to stay…it wasn’t because I thought I could get you into bed. It was because…because I care about you. And I–” “You can’t care about me. You barely know me.” “Now I thought you were gonna let me finish.” She clamped her lips together, crossed her arms over her chest and waited. “I don’t know you very well, that’s true enough. The point is, I want to know you. I like being with you, Chelsea. I like spending time with you and I like the way I feel when I’m near you.” She stared at him, sure there was a punch line coming. But there didn’t seem to be one imminent. His eyes were intense and so damned sincere that he almost had her believing this bull. “How…how do you feel when you’re near me?” she asked, surprised to find her voice had gone whispery soft. He shook his head, his gaze turning inward. “I don’t know…like…like maybe I’m more than just a stand-in parent to the kids. Like maybe I’m more than just the guy everybody brings their troubles to. More than just a small-town sheriff. I feel…I feel like a man. A flesh-and-blood man. I feel…alive.” She drew a deep breath and told herself his sweet talk wasn’t working on her. Then she denied that her stomach had gone queasy at his words, or that her pulse was pounding in her temples. And that little shiver up her spine had certainly never happened. “That’s lust,” she told him. “That’s all it is.” “I know lust, Chelsea Brennan. I haven’t lived like a monk, you know.” He let his gaze roam down her body, but quickly jerked it back up to her eyes. “All right. It’s lust. I won’t deny that I want you. But it’s more than that, too. There’s something happening here, and I want to find out what it is, because it’s something I’ve never felt before.” She closed her eyes. “Look, I don’t think I want to hear any more of this right now.” “Will you at least think about it?” She nodded, because she knew there was nothing she could do to keep herself from thinking about it. Hadn’t he told her he didn’t know the kinds of pretty words that could make a woman go soft inside? Well, for someone who didn’t know them, he was doing a pretty good job of reciting them all. “Good. Now that that’s settled, will you join me for dinner?” Another surprise. The guy was full of them. “The ointment helped, Garrett, but I’m still too sore to go out.” “I know. That’s why we’re having dinner here.” “I thought everyone had already eaten.” She scowled at him, growing suspicious all over again. “They did. And now they’re gone. There’s a big shebang in town tonight. Memorial Day lasts all week around here. Dancing and fireworks. Jessi took Ethan along.” Chelsea felt her eyes widen. “Don’t worry. She’s telling people he’s our cousin, visiting from Oklahoma with his family. Everyone knows there are Brands all over the country. So what do you say, Chelsea? I want to be with you tonight. Just the two of us.’’ Panic made her throat go dry. “And just so you know, under no circumstances am I going to lay a hand on you tonight. I just want to spend some time. Get to know you. I promise, that’s all.” She was alone in this house with him. She ought to be bounding out of this bed right now and running away from him. But she wasn’t. Instead, she was lying here, thinking about how much she could enjoy an evening in his company. She must be losing her mind. “All right,” she heard herself say. “B-but I still have to leave tomorrow.” “You can make that decision tomorrow,” he told her. Then he rose slowly from the edge of the bed without touching her. “I’ll leave you to get dressed. Just come downstairs whenever you’re ready.” She nodded and watched him as he left the room, closing the door gently behind him. Oh, God, this was not what she’d expected. Never in her life had she thought any man would care enough to try so hard to work his way past her defenses. She didn’t know how to deal with this. She didn’t want a man in her life. Not ever! All right, so she’d just explain that to him. He could be Prince Charming, she’d tell him, but it still wouldn’t matter. She’d made a decision never to fall in love with a man, and it was a decision she was going to stick to. And if it hurt Garrett’s feelings, then that wasn’t her fault. He’d get over it. Garrett closed the bedroom door, leaned back against it and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. Dammit, but he’d never felt more like a schoolboy than he did right now. And the scariest part of the entire experiment was that it had worked! He pulled the index cards from his pocket, scanning the lines quickly to be sure he’d covered everything. Never felt like this before…like the way I feel when I’m with you…more than just a small-town sheriff. Yup, he’d covered everything Jessi had written down. And tossed in some of his own lines to boot. He’d thought Jessi had gone plum out of her mind when she’d set him down to coach him on what to say. But maybe she knew a little something about what made women tick after all. Hell, she was one. Imagine that. Little Jessi, a woman. All grown up. He’d never thought of her that way before. But she obviously understood this stuff. She’d told him these kinds of words from a man would make her melt inside, then assured him they’d work just as well on Chelsea. And by heaven, she’d been right. Garrett flipped through the cards to the ones yet to come. Let’s see. Music. Candles. Wine. And the compliments. Dammit, if they weren’t the most flowery things he’d ever heard, he didn’t know what were. But the other stuff seemed to have been effective. Besides, he’d taken his own precautions as backup. He’d reserved every single seat on the two flights to New York tomorrow. Just in case. Chelsea came down the stairs, and Garrett turned when he heard her steps. He was ready to tell her she was “a vision too beautiful to be real.” But when he saw her, he forgot his lines. Everything rushed right out of his head because the sight of her hit him right between the eyes. She wore a silk sundress that was the same deep green as her eyes. Thin straps held it up, and it fell over her slender curves like a caress. Her vivid red hair was caught up in the back, leaving delicate curls springing free around her face. The high heels made her legs seem like weapons, deadly weapons that could bring even a man his size right to his knees. For just a second, he felt they were aimed at him. “Damn, you look good.” Garrett bit his lip after the words escaped and tried to recall his lines. “I mean–” “Thank you.” Her face flushed with pleasure, and she smiled. Well, hell, he hadn’t blown it with that slip after all. She reached the bottom of the steps and gazed past him. “This is nice. You did all this for me?” He turned to survey the transformed living room. There was a small fire snapping in the grate and a little round table set up by the picture window. Two tall candles glimmered on the table, their light sparkling off the bottle of chilled wine and the dishes set there. Garrett would have preferred a cold beer, but hell, if it kept the lady alive…. “The music is nice, too. Did you pick that out?” He listened to the crooning of some fella named Bryan—with a Y of all things—Adams, and thought he’d greatly prefer Hank, Jr. “You like it?” She nodded, then came forward. Garrett racked his brain to figure out what came next. The wine, that was it! Oh, wait, she was heading for the table. He hurried after her to pull out her chair. Then he got lost looking down the front of her dress because the gentle swell of her bosom had captured his eyes and wouldn’t let go. Damn. He shook himself, dragged his gaze away and reached for the wine, filling her glass first. “Thank you.” Thank God Jessi hadn’t suggested he drink some from her shoe. The things had open toes anyway. She sipped, licked her lips. Garrett’s mouth went dry. He picked up his glass and drained it, then poured more and finally sat himself down. He didn’t think he’d be able to sit still for very long, though. He was damned nervous. “So,” he said. “So?” “So tell me about yourself, Chelsea.” He belatedly remembered his lines. “I want to know everything there is to know about you.” She ducked her head quickly. “You already know all my secrets.” “I don’t even know what you do back in New York.” “Oh. No, I guess you don’t, do you? I work for an ad agency.” “Doing what?” He tried to inject sincere interest into his tone, tried to maintain eye contact, which was, Jessi had insisted, vital. “I do the artwork for print ads.” His brows rose in surprise. “You’re an artist?” “Some would call me one. Others might argue.” She shrugged. “I love to paint, though. But it’s best when I’m at home and I can paint what I want instead of what’s been assigned to me. My apartment gets great morning light to work by.” “I wish I could see your paintings,” he said, forgetting about the lines he’d rehearsed. “What are they like?” “They’re children mostly. I like painting children. Happy children. Loved children.” He swallowed hard. “Because you never were. Happy. Loved.” “Maybe.” She averted her eyes. “You did a wonderful thing for your family, Garrett. I don’t know if you realize just how much they needed you after your parents died.” “I needed them just as much,” he said. Then he tilted his head. “What happened to you and Michele after your mamma went home?” “Went home. That’s a sweet way to put it, isn’t it?” He shrugged, unable to take his eyes off her. The candlelight made her green eyes shine, and he thought he might lose the entire thread of the conversation if he looked into them much longer. “We went into the system. Foster care. Got shuffled around a lot until we were old enough to be on our own.” She shook her head. “I wish we’d had a brother like you to watch out for us.” “I don’t want to be your brother, Chelsea.” She bit her bottom lip, maybe a little frightened. “But I’d like to watch out for you. You and Ethan. Even if you do go back to New York. You remember that, okay? If you ever need me, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.” Her green eyes widened a little. Then she shook her head. “You really are something, Garrett Brand.” He wondered if she meant something good, or something bad. He was straying too far from Jessi’s script here. Time to get back on track. “Will you dance with me, Chelsea?” She smiled a wavery little smile, took a sip of wine and slowly, gracefully, got to her feet. Oh, God, that must mean yes. Garrett got up, too, and stepped close to her. He slipped his arms around her waist, but loosely, just anchoring his hands atop her hips. She clasped hers at the base of his neck, and he began to move with her in time to Bryan-with-a-Y Adams as he crooned a heart-wrenching love song. Didn’t the guy know any-thing else? Chelsea sighed, and her breath fanned his throat. His stomach clenched into a hard knot, and he told himself it was just because he hadn’t eaten. It was hard to keep that in mind, though, what with Chelsea so close and Bryan-with-a-Y singing about how to really love a woman. Come to think of it, the song was downright erotic if you listened to the words. And Garrett was listening. Mental pictures were forming in his mind. Pictures that distracted him from the lines he’d rehearsed and his step-by-step plan of how this evening was supposed to go. “I have to tell you something, Garrett,” Chelsea said, and her voice was as soft as goose down. “What’s that?” She drew a breath, sighed again. Those damned sighs of hers were tickling his skin, and he battled the urge to pull her closer. So he could really feel her, as the singer kept suggesting. “I’m scared.” She said it in a sudden gust as if forcing the words out. Garrett’s feet stopped moving, and he looked down into her face. Her beautiful face. He was beginning to feel like a real jerk for leading her on like this. If it wasn’t for the fact that she’d end up dead if she ran off, he’d cut the act here and now. It wasn’t exactly the most chivalrous thing he’d ever done. “Of me?” “No. I tried to be, but…you’re just not a very scary kind of man.” He lifted his brows. “Is that a compliment or a slam, lady?” “Compliment. I’ve never met a man I wasn’t afraid of, deservedly or not. But you…you’re different.” “Different how?” She shrugged and moved closer, laying her head on his shoulder, nudging him into motion again. He tightened his arms around her waist and held her close, then began dancing again. But now the singer was advising him to really taste her, and it was beginning to get on his nerves. She’d probably taste just like sugar. “I’m not sure,” she said, and he had to think a minute to remember the question. “You’re gentle, for one thing. Everything you do, you do…gently.’’ “And you like that?” “Mmm.” “Glad to hear it. I’m doing one thing right, then.” “More than one thing,” she said, and her voice was beginning to take on a lazy quality that made him nervous. “You’re also honest. You don’t play games, just say what you mean straight out. I like that, too.” Garrett closed his eyes as a shaft of guilt the size of a Mack truck drove right through him. “So the least I can do is be honest with you in return.” Taken aback, he stopped dancing again. Hell, she had been. Hadn’t she? “About what?” he asked. He looked into her eyes again, saw them staring up at him, trusting him. He was scum. “About…us. This…thing between us.” Wait a minute. There was no thing between them. He’d made that up. No, Jessi had. “I feel it, too,” Chelsea went on. “You do?” She nodded. “I….” She lowered her head. “I want you just as much as you want me.” “You do?” It was all Garrett could do not to stagger backward. She looked up again, smiled just a little. “Yeah, I do. So you have to believe me when I tell you that if I was going to get involved with any man, it would be you.” “It would?” Dammit, couldn’t he do more than repeat her every word? “But I’m not. I made that decision a long time ago, Garrett. There will never be a man in my life. And I will never, ever, fall in love.” He sighed in abject relief. Thank God. Thank God. At least this way, she wouldn’t be hurt when she found out this had all been an act to get her to stay here. “I just thought you should know that. So you won’t be…you know…hurt. When I leave.” “Leave?” Was there an echo in here? “I’m glad you told me how you feel about me, Garrett. It’s just one more reason for me to go. It will be easier on you when I’m back in New York.” “But Chelsea–” “I can’t stay, Garrett. Especially now.” She lifted a hand to the side of his face. “You’re a special man. You deserve so much more than I can ever give.” “I didn’t ask you to give me anything,” he said, which was, he figured, better than parroting her words and adding a question mark, but not by much. “That’s good, because I don’t have anything.” He felt like swearing. Like stomping or hitting something. Jessi and her dumb ideas. All he’d done was give Chelsea another excuse to run off. Now what the hell was he supposed to do? He gave himself a mental kick. “I moved in too fast, scared you, didn’t I?” She shook her head in denial, but he caught her chin and stared down into her eyes. “Chelsea, I want you to stay. I want you to stay because I like you and because I’m nuts about Ethan. And because I’m scared to death of what will happen if you run off to New York alone.” “I can take care of myself.” “I know you can. Hell, that’s what you’ve been doing your whole life, isn’t it? But this is different, Chelsea. You have to think about little Bubba now.” “I am thinking of him. And I owe it to him to see that his mother gets a proper burial–at home, where she belongs.” “Dammit, Chelsea, you can do it from right here. Ship the body. Make the arrangements over the phone.” “And miss my own sister’s funeral?” Garrett closed his eyes, trying hard to rein in his temper. She was frustrating! “We can have a memorial service in Quinn. We can send a bushel of flowers. Hell, Chelsea, what do you think Michele would have wanted more? You and her son safe here with us, or standing beside a hole in the ground in New York waiting for that bastard to….” He bit his lip. Too late, though. “What bastard?” He shook his head. “Garrett, you know something about Ethan’s father, don’t you? Something you’re not telling me. What is it?” The timer bell pinged from the kitchen. “That’s dinner.” He said it with all the relief of a boxer teetering at the edge of consciousness and saved by the bell. “I don’t give a damn about dinner. What do you know?” He sighed long and hard, seeing his own defeat in her sparkling green eyes. “All right. I didn’t want to tell you this because I knew it would scare you. But…I found out who Ethan’s father is.” She stood away from him, braced and waiting. He lifted his hands to her shoulders, but she pulled free. He cleared his throat. “Did you ever hear of Vincent de Lorean?” “Maybe. The name is familiar, but…. Should I?” He drew another long breath. “He’s one of the most wanted criminals in Texas, Chelsea.” She jerked back as the shock hit her. But she recovered fast, and he saw something else forming in her eyes. “Wanted…for what?” “You name it. He’s head of the biggest organized-crime syndicate in the state. A real mover and shaker in the drug trade. Suspected of tax evasion, conspiracy, fraud, extortion…and murder. But so far no one’s ever been able to get enough evidence to put him away. He’s a powerful man, with powerful connections.” She closed her eyes slowly, backing up until her legs hit the rocking chair and then sinking into it. “He has people watching your place in N.Y., waiting for you to show up there with Bubba.” She swore, using words he never would have imagined were in her vocabulary. “You can’t go back there, Chelsea. Don’t you see that by now?” She swallowed hard and nodded. “You’re scared. God, I knew this would shake you. That’s why I….” Her head came up slowly. “That’s why you what?” Then she swung her gaze around to the table, the candles, the wine. And he saw knowledge there he’d much rather not have seen. “That’s what all this was about, then? You were trying to seduce me into staying here? You thought you could make me fall head over heels in love with you and never want to leave? Damn, Garrett, what the hell were you planning to do with me once the crisis was over?” “Chelsea, it’s not like that.” “Don’t make it worse by lying even more. You arrogant son of a…. God, you must really be vain to think a little attention from you would be enough to….” She shook her head hard, closed her eyes. “And I fell right into it, didn’t I? Sinking into your arms and telling you….” She got to her feet, but not too steadily. “You and your brothers will have one hell of a belly laugh when you tell them what a sap I was, won’t you, Garrett?” “No! Dammit, Chelsea, shut up and listen for a minute.” “No, you listen. I’m leaving here. I’m taking Ethan and I’m leaving. But before I go, I need to know one thing.” He shook his head. She was not leaving. He wouldn’t let her leave. Dammit, not when he knew she’d end up…. “Where does this bastard live?” His thoughts came to a grinding halt at the pure venom he heard in Chelsea’s voice. “You can’t–” “I damn well can. And I damn well will, and if you won’t tell me where to find this animal, I’ll find someone else who can. I’ve waited almost twenty years to….” She stopped talking, was breathing rapidly. He shook his head and went to her, and he did touch her this time. He took her shoulders in his hands and stared hard at her. “Listen to yourself. Dammit, Chelsea, you’re transferring all the rage you feel toward your father–rage you’ve been hanging on to way too long–onto a man you don’t even know. What do you think you’re gonna do? Hunt the man down and kill him?” “Yes! Yes, dammit!” “No. Chelsea, you gotta let go of this. It’s eating you alive.” “I can’t let go. They have to pay. Both of them. All of them. Every man who’s ever lifted a hand to a woman…or to a child. God, Garrett, when is it going to end? Somebody has to stop them. Somebody has to say it’s enough. It’s over. No more. No more!” She was shaking all over and was as white as a sheet. He pulled her tight against him, stroked her hair. “Chelsea, you’re right, so right. Somebody has to stop them. But you can’t do it alone. I know you want to, but you can’t. No one can. And you can’t do it by hunting every one of them down like the vermin they are. You might take out a few, but then you’d end up in prison and all the passion you feel for ending this nightmare would be wasted.” The first sob ripped through her, followed closely by another. It tore at his guts to feel the power of her pain wrenching through her small body. He ached, dammit. He bled inside. “I…c-can get my father…and Vincent. And after th-th-that…it’s all gravy.” “No, baby, no. Not that way. Not that way.” “Then h-how?” He hooked a finger under her chin, tipped her head up and saw the tears flooding her face. He meant to look into her eyes, try to see if he could make her see sense. But instead, he lowered his mouth to her trembling lips and kissed her. He tasted the salty tears. He tasted her. She shuddered with her inner anguish, but she held on to him. And she opened to him. He pushed his tongue between her moist lips and met hers. He licked the roof of her mouth and then drew her tongue into his, held it there, sucked at it. Wanted more. Then she pushed him away, and he went. He released his grip on her at the first sign she’d had enough and stood there panting as she glared up at him. “You don’t have to pretend anymore, Garrett. It’s not going to change my mind.” She turned and fled up the stairs. Garrett sank into a chair, whispering the words that had leaped to his lips without rehearsal. Without one of Jessi’s little cards. Without a well-laid plan. “I wasn’t pretending.” He blinked, feeling as dazed as a shell-shocked warrior. “Hell and damnation, I wasn’t pretending at all.” Chapter 10 Despite the liniment, Chelsea ached more in the morning than she had the night before. She rolled carefully out of bed, sending a jealous glance toward Ethan. He’d slept the night through in the hand-tooled hardwood cradle and still lay there, peaceful. Content. His legs drawn up underneath him made his little butt poke upward. Chelsea smiled, wondering how anyone could sleep in that position. He seemed comfortable, though. She pulled on a bathrobe and slipped quietly out of the bedroom. Another steamy bath would have been nice, but the running water might disturb the baby. She’d just wait until later to soak her aching muscles again. Right now, she’d settle for a cup of coffee and the soothing feel of early morning. The kitchen was deserted. Chelsea glanced at the little clock. Only 5:13. No wonder. The others wouldn’t wake for a little while yet. She put on a fresh pot, located a cup and waited for the coffee to brew. When it was done, she took her steaming mug out onto the front porch. She sat down on the swing, leaned back and let the morning work its wonders on her. The new day crept in with its fresh, dewy air and its bird songs. The horizon glowed with brush strokes of fire and gold. She sipped the coffee. It was beautiful here. Tranquil. But she couldn’t stay. Not now. Her serenity slipped a notch as she recalled what a fool she’d made of herself with Garrett last night. Telling him she wanted him. Confessing she had feelings for him. For God’s sake, the man must be sadistic to let her go on like that when his side of the exchange had been no more than an act to keep her at the ranch. And that would have been reason enough to run. But what clinched it was the reason he wanted to keep her here. To protect her from an abuser and a killer. Just the way her mother used to step in and try to protect her. And look where it had gotten Mom. No, Chelsea didn’t have it in her to watch anyone else, even someone as misguided as Garrett Brand, step in to take on a fight that belonged to her. She couldn’t see another person hurt in her stead. And she most certainly couldn’t stay here now. The problem was, she couldn’t go home, either. She stared out at the horizon. There must be somewhere in the world that would be safe for her and Ethan. Somewhere, there must be a haven. Then again, Michele had thought the same thing. She’d been running, searching for a safe haven, too. But this Vincent what’s-his-name had found her anyway. And killed her. A nicker came from the stable, just beyond the bigger barn. Then another. Chelsea looked in that direction, frowning. A whinny followed, and she found herself getting to her feet, tilting her head, squinting. She knew next to nothing about horses. But what she’d heard struck her as odd. Not the normal, soft sounds animals made, but more a cry of alarm. Or something. She took another sip from the mug and lowered it to the railing. Then she started down the front steps, pausing before she stepped into the still-moist grass to remove her slippers. No sense soaking them. She tossed them behind her onto the porch and hurried barefoot across the front lawn. The dew chilled her feet and sent a little shiver dancing up her spine. It felt good. She reached the big front doors and lifted the cross-piece that held them closed, as she’d seen Garrett do. She tugged one of the huge doors open and stepped inside. Dimmer in here. Cooler. The sweet smell of what must be grain, but smelled faintly of molasses, and the soothing scent of the animals themselves filled the place. Chelsea walked down the center between the stalls that lined either side of the stable. Huge brown eyes followed her progress as she moved slowly along. She spotted Sugar when she was almost all the way to the other end of the long, narrow building. She went over to her, stroked her white muzzle. But the horse seemed nervous and jumpy for some reason, dancing away, eyes too round. Chelsea wrinkled her nose as she caught a faint whiff of something else. Something that shouldn’t be here. But her attention was distracted from the task of putting a name to the scent when she heard a gentle creaking. She turned to see the big door she’d left open slowly swinging shut. She blinked and her throat went dry. “The wind,” she whispered, sending the mare a nervous smile. “Just the wind.” Wind or not, she’d had enough of this place. There was a door at the far end, exactly like the one she’d come through. It was closer than the other, so she headed toward it. Now that she’d checked and seen that the horses were fine, she could leave with a clear conscience. The spotless concrete floor was cold on her damp feet anyway. She should have worn shoes. She walked quickly to the door, but it took only a single try to tell her that it was not going to budge. Probably a crosspiece, same as on the front door, holding it closed from the outside. Chelsea looked around. There was a smaller door on her left. Not an exit by the looks of it. Probably a tack room or something. Though…oddly, she didn’t smell leather. More like…. She opened the door. Saw nothing out of the ordinary. But that smell. And…hey, that window was broken. What the…? She was only vaguely aware of a sudden movement outside the broken window. A pinprick of light, flicking from the window to the floor. Lightning bug. Only when the match landed in the puddle at her feet did she realize…. The gasoline on the floor made a loud whoosh sound and sent her sailing backward. She landed on the concrete floor, hitting it so hard she lost her breath. The fire followed her. The baby was crying. And strangely enough, Chelsea hadn’t done anything to stop him. Garrett grumbled under his breath, but dragged himself out of bed anyway. Even if Chelsea was mad enough to shoot him, she shouldn’t take it out on little Bubba. Nah. She wouldn’t take it out on little Bubba. So what was up? He pulled on his jeans. Ethan kept on yelling. He tugged on socks and stomped into his boots, waiting. Chelsea still hadn’t picked the kid up. He gave her every opportunity, even shrugging on a shirt to put off the moment when he’d have to go into that bedroom and maybe see her lying there all sleepy and sexy. He didn’t want to see her. Not after what she’d confessed last night. That she wanted him. Damn, but the look in her eyes when she’d said it had kept him awake all night. Haunting him like a ghost. Didn’t matter if his eyes were opened or closed, he could still see her there. And he’d blown it. Sure as all hell, he’d blown it. He supposed he was a little bit slow. He must be, not to have realized sooner that his part in this little play was more than just an act. The little hellcat meant something to him. Though he doubted he’d ever be able to convince her of it now. Ethan howled, and Garrett sighed in defeat and stepped into the hall. Tapping once for politeness, he opened the guest-room door. Ethan sat up in the bed, playing with his toes and hollering largely for the pleasure of hearing his own voice, Garrett thought. He looked up when Garrett stepped inside and grinned his fool head off. Garrett gathered him up and scanned the room, the unmade bed, the empty bathroom. Chelsea wasn’t here. Frowning, Garrett looked around for the diaper bag. “I’ll get that, big brother.” He spun to see Jessi, sleepy-eyed and ruffly-haired, smiling at him from the doorway. “Here, hand over the little pudge. I’ll give him his morning bath. Meanwhile, you can tell me how last night went. You were already in bed by the time we came home.” Garrett frowned as a high-pitched whinny, which sounded an awful lot like Duke, drifted from the stable through the open bedroom window. “Later, Jes.” He handed her the baby on the way past, took the stairs at a trot and headed into the kitchen. Fresh coffee. Sugar out on the counter. A spoon. “Chelsea?” No answer. He frowned, studying the room, the beginnings of worry gnawing at his stomach. She shouldn’t be out alone. Not with Vincent de Lorean after her. But as he glanced at the front door, he saw that it was unlocked. Somebody had gone out this morning. He crossed the kitchen quickly, opened the door and looked over at the porch swing, half-expecting to see her scowling at him. She wasn’t there. But a half-filled coffee mug sat on the railing. And her slippers lay on the steps. Duke squealed again, drawing Garrett’s gaze toward the stable. That’s when he saw the smoke. He turned just long enough to bellow, thankful for once for his booming voice. “Fire in the stable!” And then he was racing across the lawn, his heart in his throat. He told himself there was no reason in the world to think Chelsea was in that stable. But he believed it anyway. His heart damn near pounded a hole through his chest. No. She couldn’t be inside. The crosspiece still held the front doors closed. Garrett lifted it, tugged the doors open. Flames roared in front of him, a solid wall of fire blocking the entrance. Garrett turned away and raced around the side of the building, up the ladder to the second story where the grain was stored, and climbed inside. The place was sweltering and beginning to fill with smoke. But no flames licked at the granary. He got down on all fours, felt the searing heat scalding his palms as he searched for the trapdoor. He coughed, swiped sweat from his brow, found it and jerked it open. Light, heat and smoke poured through. No flames, though. He couldn’t see any directly below, so he swung his legs down through, and let himself drop. The floor met him halfway, it seemed. Knocked the wind out of him. Damn. He coughed, wheezed, knuckled his stinging eyes and tried to see. He shouted Chelsea’s name, but it was useless. The horses had taken to shrieking in terror. Walls of fire rose at both ends of the stable, blocking the exits, and the flames had spread, licking at the rafters and the stalls at either end. Sugar reared and kicked the wall behind her again and again. Her stall was on fire, and she was crazed. Garrett staggered to his feet and started toward the frightened animal. Only then did he stumble on Chelsea. She lay on the floor, barely visible in the smoke haze that filled the place. If he hadn’t tripped over her, he might never have found her. Garrett bent down and gathered her up. She hung limply in his arms, head hanging backward. Her robe was smoldering, he realized with a start, and he quickly stripped it off her. Then he moved back to the trapdoor. He slung Chelsea over his shoulder, gripped the ladder and started up. Flames roaring in his ears now. Searing his flesh. Smoke choking him. He was weakening, dammit. Wheezing, gasping like an old man. He emerged into the loft, but it was no longer any better here. Worse, if anything. Hotter. Smokier. Flames were now licking up through the floorboards here and there, and the roar was deafening. Horses screamed in an agony of panic. He took a step toward the opening he’d come through. Then another. And then the floor beneath him just dissolved, and he and Chelsea crashed down into the hubs of hell. “Garrett!” Jessi screamed. “Garrett!” She stood as close as she could to the blazing stables, which wasn’t close enough. But she had little Ethan on her hip and didn’t dare go any closer. The place looked like a giant torch, and her beloved brother was inside. It was a nightmare. Elliot manned a hose, trying to soak down the blaze in the doorway enough to get inside. Wes had raced back to the house for a chain saw and now he was revving it and running, which was none too smart, but he did it anyway. He headed around the side of the stable, and Jessi raced after him. Wes lifted the saw and sank its ripping teeth into the side of the building. The machine whined and growled. The horses shrieked and the fire roared. Ethan took to crying, too, and soon the noises all blended together. Jessi dropped to her knees right there in the dirt, hugging the sobbing infant to her breast and praying out loud for the volunteer firemen to show up fast. She watched as her brother wielded the saw, and as soon as a jagged, gaping hole was made, Wes tossed the chain saw to the ground, lifted his arms over his face and charged right on inside. “Wes, no!” Jessi shouted, but she knew it was useless before the words were out. Then Elliot came charging around the side of the burning building, as well, and dived inside after Wes. Blue stood beside Jessi, all four legs braced as he leaned forward, barking at the fire, the hair on his haunches bristling. The dog ran a few steps forward, then backed away, whimpering over and over again, torn between the age-old instinct of self-preservation and the love of his masters. The fourth time he lunged forward, ol’ Blue didn’t come back. He leaped through the opening and vanished into the billowing gray smoke. “Oh, Lord,” Jessi cried, kneeling and rocking as unchecked tears flowed down her face. “Lord, don’t take my brothers. Don’t do that to me…please….” She heard sirens. Time ticked by. Endless moments passed like hours, though it could only have been seconds between the time she heard the sirens and the time the trucks came barreling into the drive, bounding over the grass. Then men were running this way and that, voices yelling orders. “Jessica?” A warm, big hand closed on her shoulder, and she dragged her gaze from the fiery maw that had swallowed almost all of her family except for Ben and Adam. She saw the worried face of the stranger who’d come to dinner last night. “Lash.…God, Lash, my brothers….” His dark brows rose over those pale blue eyes. “In there?” She nodded, returning her gaze to the hole, praying, hoping. “There are people inside!” Lash yelled at the men who were even now manning fire hoses. He touched Jessi again. Both hands this time. “Come on. Get away from here before you and the baby end up hurt.” He pulled her to her feet. But she tugged her arm free as soon as she was upright. “Jessi, there’s nothing you can do here. Come on.” Fresh tears spilled over as he guided her away from the building at a run. He pointed her toward the house, then left her, heading back to join the firefighters. Jessi didn’t go far, only halfway, and she never took her eyes off the inferno. The roof was ablaze now, as well. But the flames in the doorway had subsided. She caught her breath when she saw Lash don one of the heavy yellow coats and a helmet, then head inside with the others. Only seconds later, big old Duke was led through that doorway with a neckerchief over his eyes. Behind him were Sugar, whose rump bore charred spots, and Paint, dancing and kicking wildly. The man who led them out was Jason Pratt, a local merchant she’d known since kindergarten. He ran across the lawn, releasing the animals into the corral and closing the gate before hurrying back to the blazing stable. Marisella’s battered pickup bounced into the driveway, and the elderly woman jumped out with the agility of a sixteen-year-old. She ran up to Jessi. “Give the child to me before you drop him, chica. Here.” She pried Ethan from Jessi’s arms, and the baby stopped crying. Then Lash came through the front door, half-dragging Elliot. Elliot’s arm was wrapped around Lash’s broad shoulders. They ran several yards from the stable, then Lash eased Elliot to the ground, whirled and raced back inside. One of the volunteers who hadn’t gone in rushed over to Elliot with an oxygen tank and a mask. Jessi took a step forward, but Marisella’s firm hand on her arm kept her from running to him, as well. Two more men came out, Wes suspended between them, his face blackened with soot. He was coughing uncontrollably, and it looked as if he was fighting his rescuers. They dumped him on the ground and one of them stayed with him, trying to hold him there by all appearances, while the other rushed back inside. On his way in, the fire fighter passed another, coming out carrying Chelsea in his arms. He laid her beside Wes and Elliot. Jessi did rush forward now, ignoring Marisella’s warnings. She fell on the ground beside her brothers, not caring that she was in the way of the paramedics who tried to tend them. “Elliot! Wes! God, I thought…. Are you all right?” Wes coughed some more, but tore the oxygen mask away from his face and struggled to his feet. Elliot lay on his back, blinking slowly and breathing deeply from the mask over his face. “Garrett’s still in there,” Wes growled at the fire fighter holding his shoulders. “And you damned well can’t stop me from going in after my brother.” Elliot muttered something that sounded like “Garrett” from beneath the mask. Jessi smoothed his sooty hair away from his black-streaked face. But her eyes were on the door. More horses emerged, then more. She counted them and knew they were all safe. But no sign of Garrett. She glanced Chelsea’s way, but so many people were bending over her it was impossible to see. Fear gripped Jessi’s heart. Part of the roof fell in with a deafening roar and an explosion of sparks and cinders. The flames shot skyward, and Jessi screamed Garrett’s name. Wes shoved the fire fighter so hard the man went flying and hit the ground, then Wes surged forward, running flat out toward the stable. But he stopped short at the doorway. Garrett and Lash came stumbling out, and it was unclear who was helping whom. Blue lumbered along beside them. They staggered forward, and Jessi ran to meet them. Wes already had his arms around Garrett, so Jessi took hold of Lash and helped him back toward the others. The remaining part of the roof and one whole side of the stable fell inward with a thunderous crash. But Jessi was too busy thanking God to notice it much. “Chelsea….” Garrett coughed and pushed the oxygen mask away from his face. He glanced once toward the burning building. Not much was left but a blazing framework. And then even that collapsed in on itself, leaving only charred ruins. Jessi knelt beside him, crying, holding his hands. “They got her, Garrett.” She nodded to his left, and Garrett saw Chelsea lying there, surrounded by men who worked on her. But her eyes were closed and his heart turned over. He drew a raspy breath, swallowed, but his throat felt raw. “Wes and Elliot?” “They’re okay, Garrett.” This from his left, and he turned to see Lash sitting upright, back bowed forward slightly, holding a mask to his face, breathing several times before moving it aside to speak again. “They took in some smoke, but they’re okay. We got all the horses out, too, I think.” Garrett took only a second to look for his brothers. Elliot seemed shaken, dazed, but all right. Wes had wandered over to the corral and was trying to soothe the horses there. Garrett brought his gaze back to Lash and narrowed his stinging eyes. “What the hell are you doing here?” “Garrett, he saved your life. Elliot’s, too,” Jessi said. “Thank God he was here.” Lash held Garrett’s gaze. “I saw the fire trucks heading this way, and I followed.” “Why?” Lash shrugged. “Thought I might be able to help. I used to do this crap for a living.” Garrett frowned. “You’re a fire fighter?” “Used to be. In Chicago.” Garrett nodded, digesting the information and still wondering what this stranger was really doing here. Why did he leave Chicago and show up in a speck-on-the-map town like Quinn? Why did he just happen to be around every time disaster struck? Chelsea groaned, a hoarse, guttural sound, and putting his questions aside, he got to his feet and went to her. He knelt beside her, brushing her hair away from her face. “She took in quite a bit of smoke, Garrett. Has a few burns, but nothing life threatening. We need to get her to the hospital.” He nodded to the anonymous voice of a paramedic, not bothering to link a name to it or to check the face of what was, in all likelihood, one of his neighbors. “You could use some treatment yourself,” the voice said. “I’m fine. See to Chelsea.” The man didn’t argue. Garrett watched helplessly as Chelsea was bundled onto a gurney and rolled to a waiting ambulance. He turned once, found Wes and Jessi standing nearby. “You all right, Wes?” Wes nodded, grim-faced. “Some of the horses have burns. They’ll need tending.” “Can you and Jessi handle it?” “Sure,” Jessi said quickly. “I’ll ask Marisella to stay and take care of Ethan for us.” “I want Elliot at the hospital. He doesn’t look good.” “Neither do you,” Wes replied. “I’ll see he gets there.” “Send him along by ambulance. I want you to stay here, Wes. I’m thinking this fire was no accident.” Wes’s black eyes narrowed, again reminding Garrett how appropriately his Comanche mother had named him. Raven Eyes. “Vincent de Lorean?” “Probably.” “You think he’ll try again?” “He might.” “I’ll watch things. He tries anything today, he’s gonna be one hurting son of a–” “You watch things. Don’t let little Bubba out of your sight. Not for a second. I’m going with Chelsea.” Wes nodded, for once not making smart remarks about his love life. Garrett climbed into the back of the ambulance and found a seat. He clutched Chelsea’s dirty hands in his and closed his eyes as the doors slammed shut. Then the vehicle bounded away, its siren wailing. She stirred awake. Pain seared her right arm and both feet. Her lungs burned. Her eyes stung, and it hurt to breathe. But all of that faded when she brought her vision into focus and saw Garrett sitting in a hard little chair beside her bed, staring down at her. Black soot coated his face and neck and arms. His dark hair curled unnaturally at the ends, singed, and she realized what had happened. She’d been trapped in the burning stable, and he had come in after her. His brown eyes widened when they met hers. “Thank God Almighty, Chelsea. I was beginnin’ to think you’d never come around.” She opened her mouth to speak, but only a hoarse croak emerged. She glanced down at herself. She lay in a white bed, wearing a pale blue hospital gown, and her right arm was bandaged and both her feet were wrapped in gauze. No soot coated her skin, and she realized someone had cleaned her up. No one had tended to Garrett, though. She cleared her throat. It hurt. “You’re a mess,” she whispered. “You should have seen yourself.” She mustered a smile. “Are you hurting, Chelsea?” “A little.” She closed her eyes, licked her parched lips. “A lot.” “I’ll call a nurse, make them give you something for–” “In a minute.” She covered his hand as he reached for the call button clipped to the edge of her pillow. “Garrett, there was someone outside the barn.” “You saw someone?” “I saw…a shape. Movement. I smelled gasoline, and….” She closed her eyes, shivering at the memory of the instant when she’d realized what was happening. He left the chair, bending over the bed and enfolding her in his arms before the chill even left her spine. His big, solid chest was under her hands, and his strong arms held her gently. She thought she felt him tremble. And when he spoke, his voice was rough from more than just the smoke he’d inhaled. “Dammit, Chelsea, you could have been killed. I could’ve…we…could’ve lost you.” She didn’t fight her instinctive response to him. She let her arms slide around his waist and hugged him back, resting her head on his shoulder. He smelled smoky. But even that didn’t make his embrace less soothing. “I was scared, Garrett. I haven’t been that scared since those nights when I’d sit in my bedroom and listen to my father’s slaps and my mother’s tears.” His sigh warmed her neck. Then he loosened his grip and moved back a little. He looked down at her and smiled softly. “I smudged your face.” He took a tissue from the box on the bedside stand and wiped at a spot on her cheek. She drew a calming breath, wishing she could steady her pattering heart, but finding it difficult. Garrett dropped the tissue into the wastebasket and sat in his chair again. “So what were you doing in the stable, Chelsea?” She shrugged. “The horses sounded jumpy. I thought I’d check on them.” She studied his face as he listened carefully to her answer. “How did you know I was out there?” “Saw the coffee on the porch, your slippers. Then the smoke.” He shook his head and swore. “You’ll never know how I felt when I yanked those doors open and saw that wall of fire.” “But you came inside anyway.” He held her gaze a long moment, his brown one darkening. “Because I had this gut-deep feeling you were in there.” “You could have gotten yourself killed trying to get me out.” “What was the alternative, Chelsea? Just leave you there to burn to death?” She shrugged. “I’m beginning to think my nephew would fare just as well being raised by you as by me. Maybe better.” “And you think your nephew is the only reason I risked my neck to get to you?” She lifted her chin. “What else would I think?” He hooked a finger beneath her chin to raise it, then settled his mouth over hers. His kiss was gentle. Healing, almost. Warmth and life seemed to flow through him into her. He lifted his head. “Think that,” he said softly. She blinked up at him, confusion swirling like a tempest in her mind. “I don’t….” “Doesn’t matter, Chelsea. We have time. Right now, all that matters is that you’re okay and you’re coming home with me.” She drew a slow breath as Garrett settled back in the chair. “I’m not sure that’s such a great idea.” He frowned, didn’t speak, just frowned and nodded at her to continue. “Garrett, if that fire was deliberately set, then this Vincent character knows where I’m staying. He knows where Ethan is. And he’ll keep trying until he gets to us.” “He can keep trying until hell freezes over, Chelsea. It won’t do him any good. He’s got a truckload of Brands to go through before he can get to you or Bubba, and he’s gonna find that isn’t exactly easy.” Chelsea closed her eyes. “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.” Garrett shook his head slowly, a puzzled look creasing his brow. “You could have been killed in that fire, Garrett. Elliot or Wes–God, even Jessi–might have died today. I don’t want all of you standing between this gangster and me. I don’t want anyone else suffering because I showed up in your lives.” “No one’s going to suffer–” “No? Tell my mother that, Garrett. She died because she tried to protect my sister and me. I can’t live with that happening to anyone else.” He stared down at her in silence as if he didn’t know what to say. Finally, he just sighed hard. “We’ll take precautions. I’ll contact Ben and Adam, get them back here to help out. Everything will be just–” “No.” He frowned at her, seeming unable to understand what she was getting at. “He murdered my sister, Garrett. Not yours. This is between Vincent de Lorean and me, and nobody else.” “And Ethan,” Garrett whispered. “Don’t you forget about Ethan.” Licking her lips, swallowing hard on a decision that went down like a brick, she nodded. “I’m not forgetting him.” “Chelsea….” He shook his head, leaned over and took her hand in his. “All that crap before, the wine and the music, that wasn’t me. It was bull. But I realized that night that–” “I don’t want to hear this. Not now, Garrett. Please.’’ He stared down at her, and she knew she’d hurt him. God, could the big lug actually have developed a soft spot for her after all? “You aren’t alone anymore, Chelsea. Dammit straight to hell, I know you’ve had to be your whole life. I know every battle you fought, you fought by yourself. But you don’t have to do that this time. Damn, woman, why won’t you let me help you?” Because I love you. The words whispered through her mind like a sudden breeze, startling her enough to make her eyes widen. She loved him. The way she’d loved her mother and her sister. She loved him in spite of the fact that he was a man and that she’d vowed never to love one of that gender. And she trusted him. There wasn’t a single doubt in Chelsea’s mind that he’d never harm a hair on her head. No doubt in her mind that he’d do everything in his power to protect her. Her mother had tried to protect her, too. From a man a lot like Vincent. Her own father. Oh, Chelsea and Michele had taken beatings. Lots of them. But whenever she could, Mom had stepped in, diverted the bastard’s rage away from her daughters, deliberately directing it at herself instead. And she’d died because of it. And Michele. Michele had found a safe haven for her baby son and then run off in another direction. She’d become a moving target for Vincent’s rage in order to save her son from the monster. And she’d died because of it. Chelsea couldn’t let someone–especially Garrett–try to take her place as the target of Vincent’s vengeance. And she wouldn’t run. Running didn’t do any good. No place was safe as long as that man remained on this planet. “Come home with me, Chelsea. The doc said you could leave whenever you felt up to it.” She nodded slowly. “Okay. I’ll come.” But she knew in her heart she was lying. Chapter 11 Something was on her mind. Garrett knew it as well as he knew his own name, but she wouldn’t open up. Wouldn’t tell him about it. Wouldn’t let him in. And he wanted to get in more than a hairless pup in a blizzard. The more she withdrew, the more edgy he became. Until it seemed to Garrett that nothing in his life had ever been as important to him as his new mission. Getting to Chelsea Brennan. Making her let him help her, to let him see what she was thinking, what she was feeling. To let him…. Ah, hell, he didn’t know what. The stable was nothing more than soaking wet ashes and a few chunks of charred beams here and there. The horses were stuck in the corral for the night. Elliot was still complaining about his lungs hurting. Wes, Garrett suspected, was hurting a lot more than Elliot, but typically, he hadn’t said a damned word to indicate it. Jessi was still shaky, jumping at shadows. He’d heard from Elliot that she’d been target shooting while he and Chelsea had been at the hospital. Target shooting, when they all knew damned good and well that Jessi could outshoot any of them. She didn’t need to practice. He hated to see his tomboy sister all nerved up. He’d been nerved up, too. So much so that he had a call in to the Texas Rangers asking for background information, an address and anything else they had on Vincent de Lorean. They hadn’t got back to him yet, but Garrett thought it wouldn’t be much longer. The second he knew where he could find the bastard, he planned to pay him a visit. And not a pleasant one. Only Ethan seemed unaffected by it all. He played with the new set of soft-sided, brightly colored building blocks Wes had brought home from one of his trips into town. The kid loved the things. He especially seemed to like bopping ol’ Blue on the head with them, not that Blue minded any. In fact, the old mutt actually batted one across the floor a second ago the way a playful puppy might do. Little Bubba had a way of making everyone feel younger, Garrett supposed. He glanced into the kitchen at Chelsea and swallowed hard. Yep. He knew he, for one, felt like an awkward twelve-year-old eyeing potential dance partners at his first boy-girl party. He girded his loins and stomped into the kitchen. He’d taken a lot of pains today while Chelsea had been lying upstairs in bed recuperating. Now, dammit, he was going to give this thing one last, all-out shot. “Chelsea?” She turned toward him with a head of lettuce in her hand, auburn brows lifted. She’d trimmed off the edges of her hair where it had burned a bit, so now it framed her face in a way it hadn’t before. He liked it. She seemed softer, and maybe a little more approachable. Her eyes were not hostile when they met his, and he thought they might’ve come to some kind of a truce back there at the hospital. God, when he’d realized she might be trapped in that fire…when he’d seen her lying so still on the ground while those men worked on her…. His world had tilted. Looking into those deep green eyes, he felt that way again right now. Like looking way down into a pine-bordered lake. He could see himself in their reflection. He could see…. Good grief. He guessed he’d better get her alone before he made a damn fool of himself in front of everyone. They’d never let him hear the end of that. He took the lettuce from Chelsea and set it aside. Then he reached for her good hand, closed his around it and gave a gentle tug as he turned toward the door. “Come on. You and I are going out for dinner.” “We are?” “Yep.” He pulled her a few steps closer to the door. “Don’t you think you might have asked me first?” “Nope.” “Shouldn’t I at least change my clothes?” He glanced down at the snug jeans and T-shirt she wore, smiled, then checked it so she wouldn’t see what was in his eyes. Truth to tell, she looked a little bit too damned good. The jeans hugged and the T-shirt revealed and he wanted to touch her all over. But not if she was going to be cringing and getting all skittish with him. He wanted her to want his touch. He wanted her to…. He closed his eyes, drew a breath. “You’re perfect, Chelsea. We’re not going anywhere fancy.” She shrugged. “If I said no?” “I’d stand outside your window and do my lonesome coyote impression until dawn.” Her lips curved into the delicate smile he’d been getting all too used to seeing. And even though he was getting used to it, that slow, slight curve of her lips made his stomach turn cartwheels and his heart break into a gallop. “Then I guess we’re going out,” she said softly. “Though I might want to hear that lonesome coyote impression some other time.” He grinned at her and pulled her to the door. Duke and Paint stood saddled and waiting. Chelsea frowned. “Where’s Sugar?” “Burned her rump a little bit. Nothing too serious. Jessi tended her and she’ll be fine. But a saddle would chafe.” Chelsea stroked Paint’s neck and moved around to the left side. Garrett helped her into the saddle. “Isn’t this Wes’s horse?” “Yup.” “Won’t he mind?” “He insisted. Said Paint was the most well-trained, intelligent animal on the place, and if you were riding at all, you ought to be riding him.” “He said that?” Garrett nodded. “My brother pretends to be made of stone, Chelsea, but he isn’t really. It’s just tough to crack through that granite shell sometimes.” “Wasn’t very tough for Ethan, though.” “No, Ethan got to him right off. We could all see it.” Garrett checked the bulging saddlebags and then swung into the saddle. “What makes him like that? So…hot tempered and hard?” Garrett glanced sideways at her as the horses turned side by side and started across the lawn, not toward what used to be the stable this time, but around the house, behind it and across the back lawn, as well, toward the sparse clusters of little trees scattered here and there. “My brother spent two years in prison, Chelsea. That’s enough to harden a man.” She opened her mouth, closed it again and stared at him. “Wes?” “Yep. Some guys he was hanging with robbed a bar. Beat the hell out of the owner. Wes had left them before it happened, but he got blamed all the same.” “You mean he was innocent?’’ “I’d stake my life on it.” “But–” “I wasn’t a sheriff then. The circumstantial evidence was stacked against him so high, I’m not sure I could’ve done anything even if I had been. Bought him the best lawyer in the state, for what it was worth. But he ended up being sentenced to five years hard time. We got him paroled after two, though. I’m not sure that would have happened, either, except one of the men on the parole board was a friend of my daddy’s a hundred years ago.” “That’s awful.” She turned in the saddle, looking back toward the house and shaking her head. There was real regret in her eyes. “Two years for nothing.” “After Wes went up, I ran for sheriff. Figured if I couldn’t beat the damn system, I might as well join it and try to change things from the inside. My brother…well, it’s taken him a while to understand that. He was none too happy to come home and see me wearing a badge.” “I can imagine. He must have thought you’d joined the enemy.” Garrett nodded, studying her face. “You have a way of nailing things right down, Chelsea. That’s exactly how he felt.” She stared into his eyes, and he could see her feeling for him, as well as for his brother. She had a heart as big as all outdoors. Though she didn’t even realize that. Odd the way she could feel for the pain of others, but couldn’t let anyone else–couldn’t let him–feel for her. Share her hurts. She did once, though. She did when she told him about the night her mamma died. “What about now?” she asked. “Does he understand now?” Garrett had to blink and focus hard before he came back to the subject at hand. “I think so. There’s something…something lacking in Wes’s soul.” Garrett walked Duke up to a little tree and drew him to a halt. “I’ve raised him just like the others, but it wasn’t enough somehow.” He slid from the saddle, pulled off the bridle and didn’t bother picketing Duke. He wouldn’t wander far. He removed the saddlebags and slung them over his shoulder. “But, Garrett, Wes isn’t just like the others.” “No?” She shook her head. “Elliot told me he’s half-Comanche.” Garrett nodded, not minding at all that Elliot had told Chelsea about it. “My father left us for a time. It was before Elliot and Jessi were born, and I was just a kid. Never did know the whole story until a good while later.” He slipped his free arm around Chelsea’s shoulders, moving a little bit away from the horses and into a shady spot as he spoke. Compelled for some reason to tell her everything about himself, about his family. “What was the whole story?” she asked in that deep, soft voice that sent chills up his nape. Garrett cleared his throat. “Her name was Stands Alone,” he said, “and I wish to God I’d known her. She was one hell of a woman, Wes’s mother.” She frowned at him. “I’m surprised you’d feel that way about the woman your father had an affair with.” Garrett shrugged. “She was orphaned as a child, married young and widowed a short time later. Hence the name. But she never knew my father was married. They had a brief affair, and she fell deeply in love with him. But she was a wise woman and she knew, somehow, that his heart belonged to someone else. When she called him on it, he told her the truth. Then she sat that man down and gave him hell. Told him she wanted nothing to do with a man who would betray a good woman who bore him sons. Lectured him on the value of a good man. On how honor and trust and fidelity were more precious than riches, and how a man’s children should mean more to him than his own life. She made him feel about two inches tall and sent him home to us, telling him not to ever try to see her again. What she didn’t tell him was that she was pregnant with his son.” He looked into Chelsea’s eyes, saw them wide and interested. “How did your father ever find out about Wes?” “He didn’t,” Garrett told her. “My mother did. Stands Alone changed my father. When he came back to us, he was the most devoted husband and father anyone could ask for. He felt bad for hurting our mother and did his damnedest to make up for it. Some years later, my mother heard talk of a young Comanche woman who’d died and left her son, Raven Eyes, alone.” “Raven Eyes?” Chelsea said it softly, then nodded. “That fits him.” “Mamma claimed she had a feeling, and to her dying day she swore that feeling was the spirit of Stands Alone, whispering to her. Whatever it was, she went to the Comanche village and asked around. Before long, she learned the truth–that Raven Eyes was my father’s illegitimate son. She brought him home and treated him like one of her own, right from day one.” “How old was he then?” Chelsea asked. “Seven.” She nodded. “He seemed happy enough. But there’s always been that shadow in his eyes. I just wish I knew what it was.” He looked down at her, saw her gnawing her lower lip. “What? You’re thinking something. I can see it. Go ahead. Tell me.” Chelsea nodded. “He spent the first seven years of his life in an entirely different culture. Then, just like that, he’s removed from it. If it were me, I’d feel as if I were missing half my identity. He doesn’t even seem to acknowledge the Native American blood running in his veins, but he must know it’s there. He must remember his life before, but he acts as if it never happened.” Garrett moved closer to her, taking her waist in his hands, so she faced him. “You think that’s what it is?” “A tree can’t grow without roots, Garrett. Your brother only has half of them and a whole pile of anger to boot. I’d say that’s it. He probably doesn’t even know that’s what’s bothering him, but I’ll bet if he were to spend some time getting in touch with his heritage, he’d realize what he’s been lacking in a heartbeat.” Garrett nodded, studying her pretty face and wise eyes. Pained still, but wise. “How can anyone be so smart about other people’s demons, Chelsea, and so blind to their own?” Her smile died slowly, and she averted her face. “I’m not blind to them. I just….” She shook her head. “Just don’t like looking at them.” She nodded. “I want to make this better for you, Chelsea. I want to make it all go away so you can heal.” “Why?” He lowered his forehead until it rested lightly against hers. “A broken heart can’t be filled. It just keeps leaking. I want those cracks all patched up, Chelsea:” She looked down. But he kissed her anyway. He nudged her lips into parting, he tasted her mouth, he slipped his arms around her and held her tight. The way he’d wanted to all day. “I think I might be–” “Don’t.” She pulled free of him and turned back to her patient mount, pulling the bridle off the way Garrett had done with Duke. “Not yet, Garrett. I’m not ready.” “Okay.” She faced him, bridle dangling from one hand. “Okay? That’s it?” “Yep.” Her eyes were wary, then relaxed and maybe even just a little bit grateful. He slung an arm around her shoulders and walked her along a trail, leaving the horses to graze. “Come here. I want to show you something.’’ Chelsea walked along beside him, and he thought she seemed a little better since coming out here. Maybe this would help. “What are you going to show me?” “This.” He led her around the last tree and waved an arm toward the huge pond that filled what was once just a small valley before Garrett and his brothers had diverted a tiny stream to fill it. The shore was grassy and level, and she took a deep breath, eyes glittering, lips curving. “It’s beautiful.” “Yeah, I thought so, too. Until I saw you.” She blushed a pretty shade of pink, and Garrett felt his chest swell a little. Maybe he didn’t need Jessi and her silly cards after all. “You know the other night, all that candlelight and wine and crystal and china?” She lifted her brows, nodded. Garrett cleared his throat. “Well, uh, none of that was me. I mean, it wasn’t….genuine. You know?” “I think so.” He nodded toward the pond again. “This is me.” Her eyes narrowed a little, but she nodded. Garrett let the saddlebags slide from his shoulder to the ground. He hunkered down, unfastened the straps and opened them up. Then he pulled out a folded gray-and-white checkered tablecloth, took it by the edges and gave it a shake. Smiling, Chelsea grabbed the opposite edges and helped him settle the cloth smoothly over the grass. Then she sat on it, curling her legs underneath her. Garrett allowed himself the pleasure of watching her sit, then dived back into the bags for the paper plates and plastic utensils. Then a big Tupperware bowl full of cold fried chicken and another one with leftover chili, and one with fresh tossed salad. A canteen filled with iced tea, and two plastic tumblers. Some pita bread, some cheese, and a saltshaker. By the time he finished, Chelsea was laughing very softly, and he slanted her a sideways glance. “What?” She shook her head. “Just wondering if you left anything at all in the fridge for the others.” He grinned at her. “I only took as much as I could carry.” He continued arranging the food on the blanket. Then sat back, surveyed it and nodded once. “See this spread?” he asked. “Yeah.” “This is me. I’d a hundred times rather have a picnic under the sky than a fancy-schmancy candlelight dinner indoors.” “Oh.” Holding his plastic cup in one hand, he poured it full of iced tea with the other. Then he held the cup up. “See this?” She nodded. “Is that you, too?” “Uh-huh. Nothing comes close when the sun’s been beating down for days on end. I don’t even like wine. I wouldn’t know a blush from a rosé, nor would I care to. Don’t know which kind you’d have with chicken. Don’t rightly give a damn, either. Give me a tall glass of good, sweet water, or some iced tea, or an ice-cold beer on occasion, and I’m a happy man.” “I see.” Garrett handed her the glass of tea and filled another for himself. He swallowed it in one gulp. Then he reached into one of the bags and pulled out a little portable radio. He flicked it on. Mellow country music came from the tiny speaker. Whining steel guitar, then some fiddle, and a plaintive voice that could break a heart. “Hear that?” She smiled. “Not really a Bryan Adams fan, are you?” Shaking his head, he frowned and said, “Well, actually, that song we were dancing to the other night began to grow on me. But this is what I’d have picked.” He reached down and snapped the radio off. “Or maybe not. Cause this is the real music.” She frowned. He held up a hand. “Shhh. Just listen.” He knew she was doing what he told her. And he was glad. He watched her pick out the sounds one by one. The gentle grinding sound the horses made as they chewed grass. The lapping of the pond when the breeze pushed at it. The occasional banjo strum of a bullfrog. The birds. The rustling leaves. The horses, moving their hoofs against the grass. The whirring wings of a dragonfly. All of it. “You’re right,” she whispered. “This is the real music.” He sat there, stared at her and was plunged into a depth of longing he’d never experienced in his life. Her eyes closed. Her head tilted as she listened, and the slight breeze wafted through her hair, like invisible fingers threading through it to feel its silkiness. It occurred to Garrett that she belonged here. Right here, right in this very spot. It was as if it had been created just for her. And she belonged in this family. She was good for them. She saw things he couldn’t see, hadn’t seen. And something else occurred to him, too. Something that made him feel like he was coming down with a bad stomach virus. Chelsea opened her eyes only to see Garrett looking a bit sickly. His face had gone unusually pale, and his eyes looked unfocused and distant, maybe a little shell-shocked. “Anything wrong?” “What? Uh, no, nothing’s…I’m fine. Here, have some chicken before it gets cold.” He pushed the bowl toward her. Chelsea grinned. “Garrett, it already is cold.” “Oh. Yeah, right.” He yanked out a drumstick, looked at it and grimaced. “Are you sick or something?” She felt a new worry creeping up on her. He really didn’t look well, and she thought of all the smoke he’d inhaled and wondered if he might be having some delayed reaction to it. “Probably just a stomach bug,” he said, and set the chicken down on his plate. He refilled his glass and took another swig of iced tea. “You go ahead. Don’t want all this food to go to waste.” Chelsea frowned at him, but helped herself to a bit of everything and ate. Garrett mostly shoved food around on his paper plate and watched her. He took a bite or two, but looked as if he were eating cardboard sandwiches filled with sand. Chelsea had witnessed this man’s appetite firsthand. He did not pick at food. He inhaled it. She finished eating and started cleaning up. Garrett’s hand covered hers, stopping her. “Let me get that.” “No, it’s okay. I don’t mind.” She went on with what she’d been doing. Garrett finally shrugged and joined in. When everything was packed away, she stood and stretched, gazing out at the pond again. She’d like to take a closer look, but if Garrett didn’t feel well…. “Pull off your shoes, Chelsea. Put your feet in.” “But you’re sick.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Go on. Coming out here and being with you is the best medicine for what ails me.” She met his eyes, but he blinked and looked away. Chelsea shrugged and sat down, pulled off her shoes and socks and rolled up the legs of her jeans. Then she walked slowly toward the water’s edge. She stuck one foot–the one that was no longer bandaged and sore–in the cool water, down onto the smooth pebbles at the bottom. Something slippery brushed her ankle and she jumped backward with a gasp. Garrett’s booming laugh reached her just before he did. “Just a little fish, Chelsea. Don’t tell me you’re scared of a little fish. Didn’t you ever swim in a pond before?” She slanted him a narrow-eyed glare. “No. Only pools where you can see all the way to the bottom.” She glanced warily at the water again. “What else is in here?” He shrugged. “A few frogs. Maybe a mud turtle or two.” “Turtles?” She took another step backward. “Nothing that will hurt you, Chelsea.” She turned slowly, tilting her head. “You sure?” “Nothing’s ever gonna hurt you. Not when you’re with me.” Only, she wasn’t going to be with him much longer, was she? She bit her lower lip, let her chin drop down. He came closer, caught it and lifted it again. His brown eyes scanned her face. Chelsea stared up into them. Then at his lips. She wanted to kiss him more than she’d ever wanted anything. The knowledge surprised her. He’d kissed her, yes. He’d even asked permission to kiss her, and she’d given it. But for her to want to touch his mouth with hers badly enough to take the initiative was something entirely foreign to her. Hadn’t she decided the touch of a man was something she could live without? Something she didn’t need? She needed it now. And he knew. She could tell he knew. Because his eyes darkened as they plumbed the depths of hers. But he didn’t move. Just stood there, waiting, the picture of patience and kindness and understanding. But with his eyes, he spoke to her, encouraged, invited, even dared. And without a word, he drew her closer. A force beyond understanding pulled at her, until she stood on tiptoe and lifted her face to his, then fitted her mouth to his and tasted his lips. They trembled so slightly she barely felt it. A faint ripple seemed to emanate from somewhere deep inside his big body and from his lips to hers, and then it echoed right to her soul. Her hands slid up his chest to curl around his neck, and Garrett bowed over her, gathered her close and moaned deeply and softly as he kissed her. She parted her lips to him, and he touched her with his tongue, tentatively at first, then boldly, probing her mouth in tender strokes that sent fire searing down into her spine and weakened her knees. His lips slid over her mouth, skimming her cheek and jawline, then the hollows underneath. She shivered, letting her head fall backward to ease the way for his explorations. He kissed a path down the column of her throat, nuzzled the collar of her blouse out of the way, then tasted the skin over her collarbone and along the top of her shoulder. His hands pressed flat to her back, and he kissed the uppermost curve of her breasts and the spot in between them. Then he trailed hot, wet kisses up the front of her, not missing an inch of skin on the trip to her mouth. His hands slid upward, tangling in her hair. Chelsea ached with a burning need she’d never felt for any man. A need she’d vowed she never would feel. She kissed him back, not wanting this forbidden feeling to end. Not ever. When his mouth left hers again, she moved over his throat the way he had moved over hers. She felt every corded muscle under her lips. She tasted the salt of his skin. His pulse thudded wildly against her mouth, filling her and melding with her own rapid heartbeat until she couldn’t distinguish one from the other. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to. His hands rose to cup her head, and gently he pulled her away. He was breathing rapidly now, and all of his color had come back and then some. “Chelsea, if we don’t stop–” “I don’t want to stop,” she blurted, surprised she’d said it so fast. But it was like that with Garrett. She could say anything to him and know he wouldn’t laugh at her or use the knowledge against her. He wasn’t that kind of man. “What do you want?” Her answer was to crush herself against his chest and lift her head in search of his lips once more. He didn’t hesitate to answer her quest. As he kissed her, he slipped his arms underneath her and lifted her up. Still kissing her, holding her, cradling her in his strength, he took long strides, bending once to snatch up the checkered tablecloth, then continuing along the shore. When she felt the sun’s absence from her heated flesh, she opened her eyes to see a small cluster of scraggly trees surrounding a blanket of grass. He let the tablecloth fall and lowered her on top of it. He knelt beside her, bent over her and kissed her mouth some more. As if feeding on it, he drew on her tongue and lips as if they tasted sweeter than honey. A sweetness he craved. Hurriedly, he smoothed out the cloth before he lay down beside her, wrapped her in his arms and gently eased her off the hard ground until she lay only on his body. The sensation was intense. The rugged length of him beneath her. Her breasts crushed to his chest. His hands slipped up underneath her shirt, roughened palms sliding over the skin of her back, up to her shoulders to pull her closer. Hold her tighter. Lick more deeply into her mouth. Let her more deeply into his. Still, it wasn’t enough. She wanted to feel his flesh. She wanted to be naked with him. She wanted him inside her. She braced herself up with one hand, tugged at the buttons of his shirt with the other. Her hurried movements made her clumsy. His big hand covered hers. “Easy. It’s all right, beautiful Chelsea. We have all night.” She met his blazing hot gaze, nodded once and tried again to free a button. His hand remained on top of hers, eyes locked with hers, as she released it and moved lower to the next and then the next. When the last button was freed, she pushed his shirt open, ran her hand over his muscled chest and felt the fine hairs there tickling her palm. She ran her fingertips over his nipple, and he clenched his jaw, gritting his teeth. A rush of desire surged through her at the way his face changed just by her touch. She wanted more of that, so she scratched gently at his nipple with her nails, and he closed his eyes, drew three quick, openmouthed breaths. It was good to do this to him. To make him gasp with pleasure. It was something she’d never dreamed of doing to a man. The thrill of it coursed through her like a drug, adding to her own arousal until she felt herself quivering like the reed of an instrument when its player’s lips are over it. She moved her hand aside, lowered her head and kissed his chest. She flicked her tongue over his hard little nipple and scraped her teeth over it, too, while she used her hand to torture its mate. His chin pointed skyward, and he panted, his chest rising and falling under her. His arms stretched out to either side, and she knew he was letting her lead the way in this. Letting her do what she wanted. Letting her call the shots. Because he didn’t want to push her or scare her or…. “Chelsea…dammit, Chelsea, you’re killing me “ But his words were only hoarse whispers. She sat up, staring down at him, feeling a power filling her. Feeling more alive, more utterly female than she ever had. He lifted his hands to her blouse, took hold of the top button, searched her eyes. “Can I?” Nodding, she sat still as he released every button. He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed the blouse open then down her arms. Lowering his eyes to look at her, he stared at her unbound breasts with something like reverence in his eyes. His hands slid very slowly down the front of her. She didn’t tell him to stop. The heels of his hands and then his palms slipped downward over her breasts, and her nipples stiffened and pressed against his hands. She understood then the cause of his rapid breathing because she could barely control her own. Closing her eyes, she fought to regain it. Warmth and a tingling sensation rose up from the core of her and seemed to pool where he touched her. He drew his fingers downward, closed them on her nipples, the slight pressure and movement causing her to gasp. He slid his hands around to her back and pulled her gently lower, and lower still, so that she was over him where he lay on the ground. She didn’t resist. She could do this. She could let him guide her, let him have some of her, because she trusted him as she’d never trusted another man. When she’d bent so low his warm breath caressed her breasts, he lifted his head to kiss the very tips. One and then the other. The contact too brief and too light. But his head remained there, close to her, and he parted his lips and ran his tongue over one yearning nipple, pushing it this way and that for a moment, only to leave it wet and aching for more as he moved to the other. Only when she felt ready to cry in sweet anguish, did he finally capture one of those throbbing nubs in his mouth. He suckled her, very gently at first. Then with more pressure and still more. It felt good. It felt so, so good. Her hands caught his head to hold him there, and she fed him her breasts for a long time. When he lay back, they were wet from his mouth, and the soft breeze wafted over their sensitized peaks and he watched them lengthen as if reaching for him. Her mind began spinning because the longing wasn’t just where he’d fed on her. It was everywhere. It was all through her body. And the epicenter was between her legs, where she felt hot and wet and empty. Straddling his body, she rubbed herself against him and felt his answering hardness bulging and pushing at her there. She slid down a little to look at him, swelling behind the jeans he wore. With hands that trembled and a heart that did likewise, she touched the shape of him. As he’d done before, he lay still, arms returning to that nonthreatening position, stretched out at his sides. He let her touch him. Let her run her fingers along the swollen length of him and finally stop at the button of his jeans. Chelsea freed it. And carefully she lowered the zipper. Parted the fly. Saw his shape and size and hardness even more clearly, outlined in white briefs. She took hold of the jeans at the waist and pushed downward. Garrett obligingly lifted his hips, but when he arched up that way she almost forgot what she’d been doing. She pushed the jeans down to his knees, then pulled away the white fabric and pushed that down, as well. She sat there, astride his magnificent thighs and looked at him. Smooth and dark and so aroused. She moved her fingers closer, touched, traced his length right to the tip, then over it and down the other side. He groaned, and she looked up at his face to see undisguised agony twisting his features. She used her nails, very lightly, on the tip of him, and he lifted his hips off the ground in supplication. She bent her head and kissed him there. That skin tasted different somehow. Musky and male. Erotic. She followed the path her fingers had taken, with her tongue this time, and he moved and twisted and clenched his hands into trembling fists at his sides. If it killed him, she knew he’d let her explore him and learn him until she was ready to take the next step. Whatever she asked of him, he’d do. Whatever she needed, he’d give to her. It was just the way he was. She cupped him underneath, massaging gently as she closed her lips around him in the most intimate kiss imaginable. And only then did he pull away from her lips, shaking his head when she looked up in question. “Give…me…a minute,” he gasped. She nodded, amazed she could reduce this giant of a man to this. She sat still, waiting for him to compose himself. He opened his eyes, met hers, smiled at her. “Okay. All right. Is it my turn now?” A tiny ripple of nerves danced along her spine, but she nodded. She could give as well as take. He caught her waist in his hands and lifted her up onto her knees. Then he undid her jeans and pushed them down. Chelsea twisted her body to the side and took the jeans off for him. He kicked his off, too, his eyes never leaving hers. When she began to move toward him once more, he whispered, “Wait. The panties, too. I want to see you, Chelsea.” Her throat had gone as dry as sandpaper. Not from fear–from sheer, gut-wrenching desire. She stood while he lay there watching, and she pushed her panties down and stepped out of them. Garrett blinked as if a sudden bright light had flashed in his eyes as he took in all of her from head to toe, utterly naked. “You’re…you’re…you’re perfect, Chelsea.” “I’m not–” “Shh. Don’t argue, baby. I know perfect when I see it and you’re it.” She sat down, feeling too exposed standing while he burned her with his gaze. “Lie down on your back for me, Chelsea. Will you do that for me? The way I did for you?” She faced him, eyes widening. “Do you trust me, Chelsea?” She nodded. Slowly, she lay back on the ground with her thighs pressed tightly together. Garrett rose up on his knees, near her feet. “Let me look at you. Let me kiss you, Chelsea. I want you to feel the way I was feeling a second ago. Let me give you that.” His hands touched her inner thighs. “Open for me, sweet Chelsea.” Shivering with passion and nerves and who knew what else, she spread her legs for him. Garrett’s eyes focused on the center of her. Then he lowered his head and kissed her there. His hands moved to open her wide, making her feel utterly vulnerable. Part of her wanted to push him away and cover herself as he looked at her. But he’d remained still for her and she would do the same for him. She kept her hands to the ground on either side of her. And he kissed her again, this time touching places that made her shake and burn and cry. Again and again he pressed his mouth to her. Then his tongue stroked over her in a hot path of fire. He drank from the very depths of her like a man possessed. Craving more. Until she cried out for him to stop because she felt herself losing all control. So he stopped and he lifted his head. Her body ached for something she couldn’t understand. It yearned and pleaded for fulfillment. He met her eyes. “I want to be inside you, Chelsea. I want it now. But only if you–” “Yes!” She reached for him, and he lowered himself onto her, nudging the tip of his arousal into her wet opening. She planted her feet and arched to receive him further. Garrett slid his hands under her buttocks, held her tight and tipped her up. Smoothly, gently, he sheathed himself completely inside her. She felt a momentary flare of pain. But Garrett moved slowly, pulling back until she quivered with need, only to plunge himself to the very hilt again. And then again. She found herself moving with him, arching to meet his every thrust, her hands clawing at his backside, clenching and kneading. He claimed her mouth. Took it, this time. She knew now he was beyond thinking about asking permission. His tongue filled her mouth as he drove her to some point beyond rational thought, her insides twisting tightly as he moved with her. And then she exploded around him, crying his name aloud without a thought to whoever might hear. He drove into her again and again until he went stiff all over, shuddering violently. Then his muscles uncoiled, and he lowered himself down, not on top of her, but beside her. He pulled her head down to his chest, and whispered something she didn’t want to hear. So she pretended she’d imagined it, then climbed on top of him and started kissing him again. Chapter 12 Mercy. Chelsea curled in the crook of his arm, naked as the day she was born except for his denim work shirt, which he’d used to cover her a short while ago. Her head rested on his chest, and her fiery hair tickled his skin. Her breaths were slow and rhythmic. Waves of air rushing into her, rolling down to the furthest reaches of her lungs, pausing, and then slowly receding back out to sea as she exhaled. He hadn’t seen her this relaxed since he’d met her. Which hadn’t been all that long ago. A fact that made him wince. This kind of thing wasn’t like him. Outside, in front of God and everybody, and he’d done things with her he’d never done with any woman. Outside, for heaven’s sake! And though she was covered–from her shoulders to her thighs at least–he was still lying under the stars fully exposed. He reached for his Stetson and settled it over his most vulnerable area before laying his head back down on the ground. She sure had been something. One of his hands came up to stroke that reddish gold hair of hers, and Garrett closed his eyes, sighing inwardly. Hell, he hadn’t thought it would ever happen. Not to him. Not like this. She stirred in his arms, and he could tell by the change in her breathing that she was awake. He kept stroking, liking the feel of the silky strands under his palm. And he rather thought she was liking it, too. “What time is it?” she asked, her voice husky. Garrett peered up at the stars for a second. “Almost midnight.” She sat up, his big shirt slid down her back to the ground. Her breasts moved freely and he found himself wanting her again. Again? Yep. “Garrett, what are the others going to think?” He smiled at her. “They’ll probably think exactly…this.” She groaned and pulled the shirt over her again. “We’d better get back.” He frowned as she got to her feet and started pawing the ground in search of her clothes. “I kind of thought we ought to…maybe…talk first.” She located her blouse, and it seemed to him that she was real careful to keep her face averted. “About what, Garrett?” “Well…about this. About…you know…this.” She found her jeans next and stepped into them. “This? You mean the sex?” The way she said the word made it sound like something simple, like eating or breathing or something. It wasn’t, though. Hell, Garrett’s entire world had been altered here tonight. “Yeah,” he said. “About the sex.” She pulled on her blouse and tossed his shirt to him. “There’s nothing to talk about,” she told him. “It was just sex. Gee, Garrett, you didn’t think it was anything more than that, did you? I mean, I already explained it to you. I’m not going to get involved with a man. Not any man. Not ever. And just because we had a little fun tonight doesn’t mean I’ve changed my mind about that.” He took the blow admirably, he thought. Felt an awful lot like it had landed hard, right in the solar plexus, and he did lose his breath and feel like throwing up. But he managed not to double over or gasp aloud like a fish out of water. He figured those were major coups by themselves. This was all wrong. He knew it was all wrong on the practical plane of his mind, but the problem was, on the emotional plane of his heart, he was too busy bleeding to notice what the practical side was saying. She’d hurt him. Taken a blade and driven it in right to the hilt, then given a little twist for good measure. She gathered up the tablecloth they’d been lying on, wadded it into a little ball and carried it back to the spot where they’d had their picnic a lifetime ago. She stuffed it into his saddlebag without pause. Garrett would have folded it with exquisite care, stroking the fabric where her body had touched it. Wondering if the material could retain some of the magic that had happened between them tonight. But it was pretty obvious the magic was all in his head. She thought they’d had a little fun. Nothing more. And damned if he hadn’t thought she was anything but that kind of woman. He’d believed her to be a lady. A wounded, frightened innocent. An injured doe he could nurture and care for and maybe, if he were lucky, make his own. Well, he’d been a fool, then, hadn’t he? He dressed quickly, yanking his clothes on, taking his anger out on them. Then he went for the horses. They’d wandered off, but not too far. Hell, in the heights of ecstasy, he’d forgotten all about them. He doubted Chelsea had been anywhere near as moved. He walked the horses back to the pond, saddled Paint up for Chelsea and quickly did the same with Duke. When he went to help her climb on, it was to see her swing herself into that saddle all on her own. Quick learner, he thought. Damn her. She hadn’t learned half-enough. Garrett swung onto his own horse and dug his heels in. It was only as Duke leaped into a gallop that Garrett caught hold of his temper and throttled it until it cooled. He couldn’t run ahead and leave Chelsea to play catch-up. Cold as she might be, Vincent de Lorean was still after her. He reined Duke to a halt and waited. When Chelsea rode up beside him, he started off again, at a walk this time. But nothing could make him look at her. Or talk to her. Not now. If he so much as opened his mouth, he was going to make a blubbering fool out of himself by telling her what had happened to him tonight. And she’d probably laugh at him. Hell, the way she acted, it was easy to imagine she’d had plenty of sex, with plenty of men. Men she hadn’t cared for any more than she cared for Garrett. She probably thought he was just a big, dumb cowboy. He probably thought she was right. He must be pretty dumb to let himself fall so hard. If Garrett so much as looked at her, she’d lose it. She knew she would. If he said a word, those gut-wrenching sobs she was battling would break loose and tear her apart. She’d never dreamed she could trust any man enough to do…what they’d done. She’d never believed herself capable of letting herself be utterly free and unreserved in a man’s arms. But she had been just that with Garrett. And it was only possible because of his exquisite tenderness, the caring in his eyes when he looked at her, the gentleness of his every touch. There would never be another man like him. She hoped to God little Ethan would try to emulate the big, gentle man who was going to raise him. It was the right decision. It was what Michele had wanted, what she’d known all along. Her sister must have sensed how perfect Garrett would be for Ethan. Somehow, she’d known. Chelsea was no good for him, because she was too filled with anger. Only the anger had changed now. It had eased and softened. It was no longer the futile raging of an abused child against an omnipotent parent. This was different. Not wild and undirected anymore. She knew Vincent de Lorean had murdered her sister. But that wasn’t why she had to kill him. The need for revenge had somehow lost its force. Or maybe she’d just lost her taste for it. No. Her reasons now were utterly different. Ethan. Little Ethan would never be safe until Vincent de Lorean was out of the picture, eliminated from the baby’s life. It had to happen. If it didn’t, Ethan might grow up the way Michele and Chelsea had. Oh, not the poverty. De Lorean was a wealthy man, Chelsea knew that. But the abuse. The lack of love. The broken heart. She couldn’t let that happen. And as long as de Lorean lived, no one who cared for Ethan would be safe from his wrath. Not Chelsea, even if she took the baby and ran away and hid. Not Garrett. Not any of the Brands. De Lorean would extract his own kind of vengeance on every one of them. And that would destroy them. All of them. It was up to Chelsea. This was her ball game, and she was calling the shots. By herself. Just the way it had always been. The horses stopped in front of the house, and she slipped down. Garrett took the reins from her without a single word and headed out toward the pasture where the other horses grazed. Chelsea watched him go, blinking back tears. Then she went inside and directly up to Garrett’s room. The house had a still, eerie feeling that told her everyone inside was asleep. Garrett would be a while coming back inside. He’d rub those horses down and hang the saddles and bridles along the split-rail fence, where the few others that had survived the fire were already hanging. He’d go out to that big barrel Wes had filled with grain from the feed store, and he’d scoop some out and feed the horses. Then he’d check their watering trough to be sure it was filled. He’d take care of everything, Garrett would. He’d take care of her, too, if she’d let him. Just the way Mom always had. And he’d probably get himself killed the way she had, too. Chelsea opened Garrett’s nightstand drawer and took out his revolver. As an afterthought, she grabbed a box of bullets. Then she slipped out of the room and across the hall, ducking into the guest room she’d begun to think of as her own. Well, hers and Ethan’s. She tucked the gun and bullets into her purse before turning to the cradle. She stood staring down at the sleeping angel inside. Her fingers stroked his satiny dark hair, and a single tear dropped from her cheek to dampen Ethan’s. “I love you, baby,” she whispered. “And I’m gonna make this world safe for you. I promise. You’re never gonna go through what your Mamma and I did. You’ll be raised with love. You’ll have a real family just like I promised you, Ethan. Right here.” She bent low and gently kissed his pudgy cheek. Then she turned back to the bed and sat down, pulled out a notepad and pencil from the stand beside it and began her note to Garrett. “I have to leave,” she wrote, struggling because her hands were shaking and because she couldn’t say the things she was longing to tell him. If she did, he’d come after her. He’d never stop until he found her. “I have a life to get back to. And I know Ethan will be better off here with you than he could ever be with me. Don’t try to find me. I’m going to change my name and start over somewhere fresh, where de Lorean can never find me. Thanks for the laughs. Chelsea.” She’d like to add a warning about Lash because she’d finally remembered why the name de Lorean had sounded familiar to her when Garrett had first mentioned it. But that might give too much away. She’d just handle Lash the way she did everything else. Alone. She dug out the slip of paper he’d dropped, unfolded it again, staring at the name and address, memorizing it Vincent de Lorean. 705 Fairview. Ellis, Texas. She hadn’t known this name when she’d found the note. And then she’d tucked it away and forgotten about it. But now…. She sat very still and quiet, waiting for the sound of Garrett’s tired footfalls on the stairs. His steps paused outside her door…briefly. And then moved on, over to his own room. Hinges creaked. The door closed. Bed-springs squeaked. Two boots thudded to the hardwood floor. She waited longer. And still longer. And then, carrying her shoes and her bag, she slipped down the stairs. Lash answered the door wearing a pair of white boxers and a frown. Bleary, pale blue eyes and tousled brown hair completed the look, and he stared at her, shaking his head. “What do you want?” “I want you to get out of town,” Chelsea said, thinking that she sounded like an old spaghetti Western. “Huh?” “I know about your connection to de Lorean,” she went on. For emphasis she handed him the slip of paper. “You dropped this the other day.” He took it from her, blinked down at it and came more fully awake. His eyes sharpened as they scanned her face. “Why didn’t you just hand it over to the Brand brothers?” “Because they’d have probably killed you. They’d probably assume, as I do, that you were behind that stampede. And the fire in the stable. My guess is that you’re just hanging around, doing de Lorean’s bidding and waiting for the chance to kidnap a helpless baby. Hell, I oughtta kill you myself.” “Now wait a minute. You don’t know–” “I know plenty. I know if I tell Garrett about you, your hide will end up nailed to the barn wall. Or at least sitting in the town jail. So you get out of town. Tonight. If I see you again, I’ll tell him everything.” His blue eyes narrowed, and he glanced past her at the car that sat alongside the curb. “How come you’re out at this time of night alone?” “None of your business.” “Where are you going, Chelsea?” “I told you–” His hand shot up fast, gripping her arm as if to haul her inside. Panic gripped her, especially since she knew this creep worked for a killer. She brought her knee up hard and fast into his groin, and he grunted at the impact, stumbled away from her and doubled over. His face turned six shades of purple as he gasped and swore. But still he forced himself to straighten up and take an unsteady step toward her. Until he saw the gun in her wavering hand, pointing dead center at his leanly muscled chest. “Damn it straight to hell, what are you–” “Shut up!” He shut up. “Now just step back inside and stay there. I mean it. If you so much as poke your head out the door, I’ll–” “I get the idea.” “And you be gone from Quinn by morning, Lash. You be gone or I’ll be back.” “How am I s’posed to leave town if I can’t poke my head out the–” “Shut up!” He lifted his hands and shoulders in compliance and stepped away from the door. Chelsea backed all the way to the car, got inside and shot away into the night. There. Safe. She’d done it. She didn’t think Lash whatever-his-name-was would dare show his pretty face on the Texas Brand again. Once she accomplished her mission, Chelsea would call or send a note telling Garrett of Lash’s duplicity, just in case. But if she’d told Garrett now, he’d have known she was leaving and tried to stop her. Garrett lay on his bed feeling sorry for himself for a very short time. Then he gave himself a mental kick in the seat of the pants. Because the whole time he’d been lying there, he’d been remembering every single second of his time with Chelsea tonight, and one instant kept coming back to him. That second he’d held her to him and pushed himself inside her. That incredible feeling of completion, of union, of rightness. But gradually, he realized those feelings were only his own–she’d reacted a little differently. She’d been real enthusiastic before he entered her. And seconds afterward, she’d been as into it as he had. But at that moment in between, there’d been the slightest hint of resistance. She’d stiffened a little. Her fingernails had dug into his skin, and she’d bit her lip. And he’d felt something. Something…. Garrett sat up in bed, blinking. Couldn’t have been that, though. Couldn’t have been…. Frowning, he got up and trotted down the stairs again. He’d tossed the saddlebags into the corner after unpacking them earlier and dumping the leftover food into ol’ Blue’s dish. The tablecloth lay atop the garbage pail, where Garrett had thrown it in an act of sheer, foolish pride. He reached for it now, held it up by two corners and let it fall open. He saw the small red stain that told him all he needed to know. He’d been Chelsea Brennan’s first lover. She’d trusted him that much. And there was no way in hell she felt as casual about what had happened tonight as she was pretending to feel. Garrett dropped the tablecloth again and started up the stairs. But when he got to Chelsea’s room, she wasn’t there. His heart slowly broke, and the only thing that kept it from shattering completely was the happy gurgle coming from the cradle beside her bed. “Bubba?” “Dadadadadadadada,” the little squirt sang, and his arms began to flail in time with his music. The relief that surged through Garrett was tinged with bitter sadness. Thank the good Lord Chelsea hadn’t taken this child away from him. But God, what it must have done to her to leave him behind. Garrett went to the cradle and bent over it, reaching down to check the diaper and stroke the silky fuzz that passed for Bubba’s hair. Ethan blinked slowly, his eyes still sleepy, but he smiled a little bit all the same. Gently, Garrett turned him over so he lay on his tummy, and then he ran his hand in the slow, clockwise circles that he knew the boy loved. His palm skimmed the baby’s back over and over, and those heavy eyes fell closed more often between peeks at Garrett. Without stopping, Garrett reached for the sheet of paper Chelsea had left on her pillow. Then he sank onto the edge of the bed, still rubbing that little back and wondering now why the action was as soothing to him as it seemed to be for Bubba. He leaned back against the headboard, reading her callous goodbye. A note that said nothing. Not one damn thing he needed to hear. Like how she felt about what had happened between them. Like why she’d so willingly given him something as precious as her virginity, and why she hadn’t told him, and whether she had ever really felt a damned thing for him at all. A soft sigh from Bubba, and Garrett looked at the sleeping child. Must have felt something for you, Garrett. She left Bubba with you. That’s two priceless gifts in under a day. He scowled, swinging his head back to the note. He was indulging in wishful thinking. She didn’t feel a thing for him. Or for Bubba. If she had, she’d have stuck around and fought for them. That’s right, she would. Chelsea Brennan isn’t the kind of woman to give anything up without a fight. Which kind of added to the theory that she didn’t give a rat’s– His head snapped around when he heard tires rolling over the well-worn driveway. Headlights moved across the window, and Garrett was halfway down the stairs before he gave himself a chance to wonder if it was really her. Dammit, he hadn’t ought to be sitting around feeling sorry for himself. He ought to be worried. He’d let her out of his sight. Out there alone, she’d be a walking target for Vincent de Lorean and his squadron of goons. Thank God she’d changed her mind and come back. Thank God. Garrett skidded to a stop in the kitchen. The face peering through the window at him was not Chelsea’s. Lash. And damned if his normally full load of calm didn’t look a brick or two shy. Fighting to keep the disappointment from showing on his face, Garrett opened the door. “What the hell brings you clear out here this time of night?” Lash licked his lips. “Trouble, Garrett. And I’m sore afraid it’s trouble with a capital C.” “A capital….” Garrett’s brows came down fast. “Chelsea?” Lash nodded slowly. “Do me a favor and listen to the whole thing before you break my face, okay, big fella?” Light footsteps on the stairs. A soft voice. “Garrett, you down here? I thought I heard–” “What whole thing?” Garrett asked, ignoring Jessi. “That for the past few months, I’ve been–technically speaking, at least–employed by Vincent de Lorean. But it isn’t what it–” Garrett’s big fist connected soundly with most of the front portion of Lash’s face. Bone crunched. Blood spurted. Jessi screamed. Lash sort of bounced off the door behind him into Garrett’s chest, then slumped to the floor. Stampeding feet crashed down the stairs at Jessi’s scream. Wes bounded to her side, his bowie in his hand and fire in his onyx eyes, while Elliot stood at the bottom of the stairs looking around and blinking in confusion. Jessi lunged into the kitchen and fell to her knees beside the incapacitated Lash, though with all that blood, Garrett wondered if she even knew who he was. She was crying and swearing, using words Garrett didn’t know she even knew. And most of them were aimed at him. She stomped away, but he knew she’d be back. Lash didn’t so much as wiggle. “You kill him?” Wes asked, looking down at the mess at Garrett’s feet as he slid the bowie back into his boot. “Not yet.” Wes frowned hard and poked Lash in the ribs with the toe of one boot. No response. He looked up at Garrett again. “You sure?” “I’m sure. Look, he’s breathin.’” Wes stared for a minute. “How can you tell with all that blood?” “I can tell.” “Get the hell away from him, the both of you!” Jessi shouted, shoving through them and dropping down beside Lash again. You’d have thought he was one of her brothers the way she was acting. She started dabbing the blood away from his nose and lips with a wet cloth. She’d brought bandages and various ointments back with her, too. Looked like she intended to doctor him up thoroughly. Garrett glanced at the inert man once more, shook his head and stepped toward the table and out of Jessi’s way. Wes joined him, fixing a pot of coffee to brew as Garrett sat down. “So what happened to your infamous, endless, unshakable temper, big brother?” “I lost it.” Wes set the carafe under the basket and flipped the On button. “Why?” “He said he’d been working for de Lorean.” Wes nodded, sending a glance toward the stranger when he moaned softly. “You suspected that all along, though. Shouldn’t have come as such a surprise.” “Chelsea’s missing, Wes. She just took off tonight. Left a note. I got no idea where the hell she is–” “So you took it out on Lash, huh?” Garrett watched as Jessi cleaned the blood away, revealing a split lip and a nose that was probably broken, judging from the odd angle of it. “I shouldn’t have hit him that hard.” ‘“Cause he didn’t deserve it?” “Hell, no. ‘Cause I have a feeling he might know where Chelsea is. Now I can’t even ask him until he comes around.” “Oh.” Wes pulled the half-filled pot out from under the drip and shoved a cup under there to catch the still-brewing coffee while he filled two others. Then he yanked the third cup away and shoved the pot back underneath, all without spilling a drop. “We gotta get one of those new ones that stops dripping when you move the pot,” he muttered, handing Garrett a cup. He took a seat and joined Garrett in watching their little sister work her veterinary wonders on a horse’s backside. “You think she’s sweet on him, Wes?” Garrett asked. “Who, Jessi? Nah. No way in hell.” Wes watched her hand stroke Lash’s hair away from his forehead. “Besides, if he ever laid a finger on her.–” “Yeah,” Garrett agreed, rubbing his slightly sore knuckles absently. “Me, too.” Elliot stood in the doorway, looking from Jessi and Lash to Garrett and Wes, and shaking his head. “You mind going back up and guarding little Bubba?” Garrett asked him. “I don’t like him being alone, under the circumstances.” Elliot swallowed audibly and nodded toward the man on the floor. “What about him?” “I want to talk to him. Soon as he comes around.” “You…uh….” Elliot shifted his feet. “You aren’t gonna hit him again, are you?” “I’ll make sure he doesn’t hit him again, Elliot,” Wes assured his younger brother. “Hell, Wes, your temper is ten times worse than Garrett’s!” “Yeah, but it isn’t my ladylove who’s run off. So I’m not as likely to lose it with Lash.” Elliot looked around slowly, taking it all in. Finally, he nodded and turned to head upstairs to the baby’s room. Chapter 13 Chelsea drove out of town, pulled the car off the road and opened the map that was still in her glove compartment—the one she’d bought at that convenience store before she’d come to this dusty little Tex-Mex town. It seemed like a lifetime ago now. Still, with a little help from the overhead light, she was able to make out the town called Ellis–which looked like a crossroads right on the border, less than twenty miles away, using her fingers to measure by. She took a moment to check out her rental car, making sure there was still plenty of gas and double-checking the water level in the radiator. Everything was fine, just as she’d left it the night she’d arrived on the Texas Brand. No one had touched the car except to move it out of the middle of the driveway. She started the car again, heading directly along the route she’d already plotted out in her mind. She was going to find this Vincent de Lorean. And she was going to kill him. Lash was lying on the couch, Jessi hovering over him like Florence Nightingale or something, when he opened his eyes. He met Garrett’s, and they narrowed dangerously. “I’ll get you back for that, Brand. You gorilla.” Garrett only shrugged. “Tell me something, Lash. You the one who spooked those cattle after all? Hm? Was it de Lorean who gave the order to burn down the stable or was that on your own initiative?” “You’re dumber than you look if you think I came all the way out here to tell a damned giant that I burned down his stable.” “I told you so, Garrett,” Jessi snapped, closing her hands around one of Lash’s. Lash looked at her and frowned as if he was seeing in her eyes something he hadn’t noticed before. The look of discovery and surprise on his face made Garrett even more uneasy than he already was. Wes reached over and gently tugged Jessi’s hands away. “Go on upstairs and check on Elliot and Bubba, hon.” “But I–” “Go.” Jessi stood reluctantly and eyed her two brothers. “If you hurt him–” “We won’t lay a finger on him. Promise,” Wes said. She glared at Garrett until he nodded agreement. Then she sent a tender gaze down at Lash. “If you need me, just call.” “I…uh….” He sent wary glances at the two other men and squirmed a little. “Thanks.” As soon as she was gone, Wes knelt beside the couch. “Just for the record, Lash, regardless of the outcome of this conversation, I don’t ever wanna see any part of your person make contact with any part of my little sister ever again. If I do, the part in question is gonna get cut off. Got it?” Lash swallowed hard, but nodded. “She’s a kid. I got no interest in kids.” “Exceptin’ for Bubba, right?” Lash shot a defiant glare at Garrett. “If you’d let me finish what I started to say before, you’d have your answers by now. I was working for de Lorean so I could gather enough evidence against him to bring him down.” Garrett’s mouth suddenly went dry. “You’re a cop?” “No. I’m an ex-fire fighter from Chicago, just like I told you.” “Then why–” “Why doesn’t matter. It’s my private business and I have no intention of discussing it with the likes of you. Now do you want to hear what I have to tell you or not?” Garrett’s knees bent, and he fell into a chair. Wes stood to one side, shaking his head slowly. “De Lorean was getting suspicious of me. I still didn’t have enough on him. But I knew he was after Chelsea and the baby, so I stuck around. Kept trying to feed him false leads and throw him off track. I knew from the beginning where she was. I was the one assigned to tail her from the morgue. But I told de Lorean I’d lost her.” “You….” Garrett whispered. “It was you who called me that night.” Lash nodded. “De Lorean found out where she was just as I’d figured he would, with or without my help. Chelsea called her apartment manager and left an address where she could have her mail forwarded. That was one of the bases de Lorean had covered. He had the address within a few hours after Chelsea hung up. I called to warn you as soon as I realized it. Well, since the jerk was already suspicious of me, it seemed there was no more I could do on that end, short of maybe getting myself shot once between the eyes. So I headed out here. Thought I could help protect her and the kid from that bastard.” “The stampede?” Lash shook his head. “When I arrived in town, I spotted a vehicle belonging to one of de Lorean’s goons heading from this direction. So I made a beeline out here and came up with the first excuse I could think of to ride out and catch up to you and Chelsea.” “And you saved our butts.” “I’m sure you’d have done the same for me,” Lash said, lightly touching his broken nose. “And the fire?” “When I saw the trucks heading out here, I knew damn well….” He shrugged. “I followed to try and help. Hell, it was half-instinctive. It’s what I did for a good portion of my life.” Garrett shook his head in disbelief. ‘‘No need to thank me,” Lash said. Garrett looked him square in the eye. “What do you know about Chelsea?” “She came to see me tonight. Seems I got careless that day in the stampede. I dropped….” He lifted himself into a sitting position with a grunt and shoved a hand into his blood-smattered T-shirt’s pocket. Pulling out a slip of paper, he handed it to Garrett. “This. She found it and must’ve thought I was really one of the bad guys. What I can’t figure is why she didn’t tell you in the beginning.” “She didn’t even know de Lorean’s name until yesterday,” Garrett muttered, cussing himself for keeping it from her. Lash nodded. “Anyway, she told me to get out of town tonight. Told me if I set foot near you or the baby again, she’d tell you I was working for de Lorean and let you toss me in jail…or worse.” He pressed a finger to his split lip, drew it away and checked it for fresh blood. Garrett nodded. “Before she left us, she wanted to be sure you didn’t pose a threat.” “She’s gone, then?” Lash asked. “Yeah. Said she wanted to start over someplace fresh. Said she thought little Bubba would be better off here with us.” “She lied through her teeth, Brand. She’s gone after de Lorean.” Garrett’s head snapped up. “What the hell makes you think she’d do that?” Lash rolled his eyes. “Wake up, big fella. One, she knows where he lives.” He ticked the points off on his fingers as he went on. “Two, she threatened me to be sure you and the baby would be safe, so it stands to reason she’d want to protect you all from him, as well. Three, she was heading that way when she left. And four, she was brandishing a handgun the size of a damn cannon. I seriously doubt she brought it along because it went so nicely with her shoes.” Wes swore, slamming a fist against the wall. Garrett felt the bottom fall out of his stomach. He glanced at the slip of paper again. “Ellis. Lord, she could be there already.” “We have to go after her, Garrett,” Lash said. “De Lorean is a snake. He’ll hurt her, dammit. He wants her out of the way so there’ll never be a challenge to his keeping custody of the kid.” Garrett swore, but ran upstairs to grab a shirt and fill Elliot and Jessi in on what was going on. The place was like something straight out of “life-styles of the Rich and Famous,” Chelsea thought. She parked the car, lifted the gun and headed up the brick path to the front door of de Lorean’s home–a Spanish-style mansion, with adobe-brick arches and stucco everywhere. A tall wrought-iron fence surrounded the place, but the gate between the towering center columns stood open. Almost as if de Lorean was expecting someone. Chelsea walked softly, eyes wide and alert. Around her, night birds chattered and chirped. Other than that, though, there wasn’t a sound. No movement. Not even a breeze. She tiptoed up the front steps, and peered at the stained-glass panels in the door, but couldn’t see through them. Her hand was slick with sweat when she closed it on the ornate door handle. She started in surprise when she turned the thing and found no resistance. Pushing the door slightly, she looked inside. The entry hall towered and glittered. Her glance took in chandeliers and arched ceilings and marble tiles on the floor. On the far side of the room, she saw a silvery-haired man, reclining in a chaise, his back to her as he lifted a crystal glass to his lips. She glanced to either side but saw no one else. She listened and heard only the soft strains of a Spanish guitar floating from a hidden speaker. Swallowing hard, Chelsea stepped inside. She lifted the gun, leveled its barrel at the back of the man’s head and moved closer. He still showed no sign he was aware of her presence. She curled her forefinger, around the trigger, drew a deep breath. “Vincent de Lorean?” she asked to be sure. “That’s correct.” His voice was deep and smooth. He didn’t seem surprised or even unnerved. “Come in, Chelsea. The least you can do is look me in the eye when you kill me.” He rose in one smooth movement and turned to flash a brilliant white smile from beneath a thin, salt-and-pepper mustache. His deeply tanned skin didn’t sport a single wrinkle or flaw. “May I offer you a drink first? From the way that gun barrel is shaking, I think you could use one.” She glanced down at her shaking hands, fought to steady them. “How do you know who I am?” “I know,” he said softly. “I have ways of knowing everything.” And without batting an eye, he sipped his drink again. One hand remained casually in the pocket of his satin robe. He didn’t seem the least bit nervous. “You killed my sister.” Her voice was trembling now. He only shrugged. “A drink would really bolster you, Chelsea. They don’t call it liquid courage for nothing, you know.” “I don’t want any damned drink.” Again, that careless shrug, accompanied by a tilt of his head. “I suppose you should get on with it, then. You came here to kill me, I assume?” She blinked the moisture from her eyes. She hadn’t expected it to be this hard. Again, she steadied the gun, sighting the barrel at the center of his chest. “It’s going to make a terrible mess, you know. That’s a rather large caliber weapon you’re holding. A forty-four, I believe. You shouldn’t have to fire it more than once.” He took a step closer, downed the last of his drink and set the glass on a marble table. Then, with one hand, he pulled the robe open, exposing his bare chest to her. “Go ahead. Pull the hammer back. And lift the barrel just a little. Your aim seems a bit low. I’d really prefer to die right away rather than lie around with a bullet in me and suffer untold agony.” Chelsea stared at his exposed skin and imagined the bloody hole she was about to put in it. The bullet would rip right through the man’s body. There would be blood. There would be a lot of blood. She lifted the barrel. Her hands shook even harder. Why was this so difficult? Why couldn’t she just pull the trigger and end this? It was for Ethan, for Garrett and his family. She had to kill this man. She’d be doing the world a favor. “Some would say, Chelsea, that you have a lot of your father in you. It surprises me, really. I didn’t expect it. But here you are, ready to kill like a vengeful god. You’ve decided I’m not worthy of living, so–” “Shut up!” She gave her head a shake, blinked again. The damned tears were blurring her vision. “You have a killer’s genes in you, Chelsea. We’re a lot alike, you and I. We do what needs doing, with no–” “I said shut up!” She lifted the gun higher, and her finger tightened a little on the trigger. Kill him, she screamed at herself. Just do it! “Don’t act so surprised, Chelsea. You’ve always known there was a lot of your father in you, haven’t you? Isn’t that the fear that’s been haunting you all your life, the fear that deep inside, you might be just like him? Isn’t that what made you believe you could come here tonight and execute me for my sins?” She bit her lip, refusing to listen to his words, refusing to consider them. She steadied the gun, put a little more pressure on the trigger…. She couldn’t do it. There was nothing of her father in her, and Chelsea knew that now. She’d been afraid of the anger inside her, of the rage. She’d always had this horrible feeling she could be just as cruel, just as violent. But she simply wasn’t. And taking a life, any life, was beyond her power. Even now, with so much at stake. There had to be another way. There had to. She’d seen too much violence, too much death. She couldn’t bear to be the instrument of still more. Slowly, she lowered the gun. De Lorean’s smile grew wider. “A wise decision, Chelsea,” he purred. And before she’d even seen him move, he’d pulled his own gun from the deep pocket of his robe. She realized it had been aimed at her the whole time. No wonder he hadn’t been afraid. “Don’t lift that Magnum again, chica. If you do anything other than drop it on the floor, you’ll find yourself in excruciating pain. I know how to inflict it. Believe me.” She swallowed hard, closed her eyes, and let the heavy weapon fall from her hands to the floor. It didn’t matter now. He’d kill her anyway. “Very good. I believe I have finally figured out how to get my son back, Chelsea. And you’ve helped me. I thank you for that.” He grabbed her arm, bruising it with the force of his grip. He pulled her forward and shoved her down onto the chaise where he’d been sitting before. “Now, if you’ll just be still for a moment, I have an important call to make.” Garrett’s earlier ascent upstairs had been stopped cold by the ringing of the phone. Now, he stood at the foot of the stairs, feeling sick to his stomach just from the look in Wes’s eyes as his brother swore into the receiver and finally slammed it down. “What is it, Wes? Who was on the phone?” “De Lorean.” Garrett closed his eyes. “He has Chelsea, Garrett,” Wes went on. “Says he’s gonna kill her unless we hand little Ethan over to him.” Garrett’s legs wouldn’t hold him. He sank down onto the bottom step feeling as if all the bones in his body had just dissolved. The air rushed from his lungs. “What else?” “We’re supposed to keep quiet. No police. No Feds, or he’ll kill her anyway.” “And he’ll know about it if you do report this, Garrett,” Lash added. “He has enough turncoats on his payroll that he’ll know. We have to handle this ourselves.” A sob from the top of the stairs drew Garrett’s gaze upward. Jessi was standing there, her face colorless and damp. “Dammit, Garrett, what are we gonna do?” “I don’t know.” Garrett turned back to Wes. “When is this supposed to happen?” “He said he’d contact us in twenty-four hours to tell us where to meet him for the exchange.” That brought Garrett to his feet. “He expects me to wait that long? To leave Chelsea alone with that bastard for–” “You have to, Garrett. You try to go after him now, you’ll be signing Chelsea’s death warrant.” Lash paced the living room, shaking his head. “He won’t kill her. Not yet, not when he sees her as the key to getting his son back.” “You sure about that?” Wes asked. “As sure as I can be.” “I can’t just wait,” Garrett said tightly. “I can’t just sit here and wait.” “Don’t wait, Garrett.” Jessi came down the stairs and slid her arms around her brother’s waist from behind, hugging him hard. “Use the time to plan. We have to be ready. We have to get Chelsea out of this alive, and we all know we can’t hand our sweet little Bubba over to that animal.” She released him and he turned to face her. “We need help, Garrett.” “No.” He answered her before she said what he knew she was going to say. “Jessi, I don’t want any more people I love risking their lives over this.” “Adam and Ben will never forgive you if you don’t let them help. And you’ll never forgive yourself if something goes wrong. They’d be here in a heartbeat if they knew what was going on. We have to tell them, Garrett.” He shook his head. “She’s right,” Wes said. “This involves all of us now, Garrett. Not just you and Chelsea. We’re family. We stick together.” Garrett met Wes’s eyes, and again his heart damn near burst with pride at the way his brothers and his baby sister had turned out. “That’s true,” Lash said. “Even if de Lorean gets what he wants, he’s going to have to get rid of everyone who knows what went down. And I’m afraid that includes all of you.” “Which is why I’m going to send them all away.” Jessi gasped. Elliot had joined them in the middle of the conversation, and as Jessi quickly brought him up to date, he stared at Garrett with accusing eyes. “Don’t argue, Elliot. You have to go. You, Wes, Jessi and little Bubba, as well. I want you all to get as far away from here as you can until this is over one way or another. Lash, if you had half a brain, you’d take off, as well. This is my fight. I don’t want anyone else getting caught in the crossfire.” “Garrett–” Jessi began to protest Elliot silenced her with one hand on her arm. “Come on, sis. There’s no sense talking to him when he gets like this. Let’s go check on the little one.” Garrett watched them go, his heart twisting. Then he turned to Wes. “I’ll book a flight for you in the morning. You can all go visit Adam in New York for a few days.” “They can go, you mean,” Wes said, his voice level and deadly. “If you think you can bully me the way you can the kids, you’d better think again, brother. I’m staying. You want me on some flight out, you’re gonna have to knock me out cold to get me on the plane. And we both know that won’t be easy.’’ Lash’s eyes widened a little at that. Garrett saw it and shook his head. “What I have in size, Wes has twice in speed and pure meanness,” he explained. “I’d hate like hell to have to find out who’d still be standing if we ever went at it.” “So don’t force me to show you,” Wes said. “I’m staying.” Garrett nodded once. He’d known Wes would argue, just hadn’t been sure how hard. “It might get ugly.” “You’re my brother, Garrett. And that kid upstairs…” He glanced at the staircase, and Garret thought he got too choked up to say more. And with those words, Garrett knew the tension between him and Wes was over. Buried. A thing of the past. One of the burdens weighing on his shoulders floated away. Too bad the remaining ones were threatening to break his back. It was the longest night of Chelsea’s life. She spent it in a locked room with no windows and nothing on the walls but brownish-yellow paint. The only piece of furniture was a small, twin-size bed with a bare, striped mattress and no pillows or blankets. An ugly room, out of place in an opulent mansion. She guessed de Lorean used the room especially for guests like her. Prisoners. She knew instinctively she wasn’t the first to be held here. She cringed at the thought that Michele might have spent endless hours in this cell-like room. She’d heard other voices shortly after de Lorean had dumped her here, so she knew he had brought in reinforcements. She’d been present when he’d placed his threatening phone call and realized that Garrett now knew what a fool she’d been. He knew–and he would try to rescue her. He would never turn Ethan over; Garrett loved that child as if he was his own. But, God, he wouldn’t stand by and let de Lorean murder her, either. Maybe he’d call the police. Maybe they’d bring in a SWAT team or something and storm this place. Maybe…. Chelsea closed her eyes and sank onto the bed. She couldn’t just sit there. She had to do something. She had put Garrett right in the middle of this, when all she’d wanted to do was protect him. She couldn’t just wait around for him to get himself killed trying to save her. She couldn’t live through that again. Because she loved him. At dawn, as planned, Marisella’s battered old pickup truck pulled in close to the front porch. Garrett paced nervously, hoping this damned plan of Lash’s wouldn’t backfire. Still, he couldn’t have come up with a better one. Lash figured de Lorean probably had some men watching the place. They’d have to be doing so from a distance or they’d be obvious. So in order to send Jessi, Elliot and little Ethan to safety, they’d have to be sneaky about it. If de Lorean knew they’d moved the baby, he’d also know they were up to something. And that would put Chelsea in even greater danger. Blue whined at the door but stayed put at Garrett’s sharp command. Wes led two horses up just behind the pickup and made a big show of rubbing them down. Their true purpose was to block anyone’s view. Elliot carried two suitcases and slung them into the back of the pickup before climbing in himself. He was none too happy about his forced vacation and he let Garrett know it every time he glanced his way. Jessi came out next, carrying the baby. She handed Ethan over to Elliot, then climbed in herself. They lay down in the pickup bed. Garrett spread the tarp over them. Then, as planned, Wes led the horses back, to the corral and turned them loose. Garrett stood on the porch, talking to Marisella as if he’d been right there all along, doing just that. In a few minutes, Marisella climbed back into her truck and left. She would drive carefully home, pull the truck into her garage, close the door and get the kids out. They’d wait an hour, then drive to the airport and take a flight to New York. It was all arranged. As the pickup rolled out of sight, Garrett breathed a sigh of relief. At least three of his charges were safe. Thank God. Now all he had to do was come up with a way he could confront Vincent de Lorean and a horde of his thugs and still manage to get Chelsea out alive. He shook his head at the enormity of the task. Chapter 14 Garrett had never been so torn in his life. He’d always been the responsible one. The one who looked out for his family. He’d always made sure they were all right. To let Wes come along when he pitted himself against Vincent de Lorean was going against everything he’d been practicing his whole life. To drag a stranger like Lash in on it and maybe risk his life, as well, was not something he would have considered. But Chelsea was at risk. Dammit, if he took them along, he risked their lives, and if he didn’t…if he didn’t, he might just be risking Chelsea’s. The choice had been taken firmly from his hands when Wes and Lash had steadfastly insisted they were coming with him, no matter what he said or did. But he still worried. And then, unexpectedly, the choice was dropped right back into his lap again. Wes and Lash had gone into Quinn–Wes to call Adam in New York just to be sure the kids arrived there safely. They didn’t dare use the phone at the ranch because Lash had suggested it might be tapped. Lash wanted to pick up a few things from his place. Weapons, Garrett figured. Most men were more comfortable using their own guns when push came to shove. Lash was probably no different. So Garrett was left alone in the house. He had the niggling suspicion it was fate that had arranged things this way. Garrett never had been one to argue with fate. He sat in the rocker in the living room, holding his big denim shirt. It was the one he’d used to cover Chelsea’s body with last night when they’d fallen asleep under the stars. Her scent remained on the shirt, its very softness making him think of her. He sat there, running it through his hands, pressing it to his face to inhale her fragrance. Chelsea. She’d been hurt and he’d made a vow to himself that he’d never let that woman be hurt again. But maybe she was being hurt right now. Maybe de Lo-rean…. He’d kill the bastard. Images of her frightened eyes haunted Garrett. He hoped to God this episode didn’t scar her injured heart still further. Damn, it wasn’t fair for one woman to have to go through so much! The crap she’d been fed all her life had left her incapable of trusting him, of loving him. Men like her father and de Lorean had robbed her, and in doing so, they’d robbed Garrett, as well. He’d been denied something more precious than life–Chelsea Brennan’s heart. Garrett realized then that it wasn’t her fault she couldn’t feel anything for him. It was selfish of him to get so angry over it. Didn’t matter that she was incapable of loving him. Didn’t matter at all. All that mattered was getting her out of this mess alive and unharmed. If de Lorean hurt her, he’d– The telephone snapped Garrett out of the chair like a shot. He snatched up the receiver before it even finished ringing. “Garrett Brand?” “De Lorean,” Garrett growled. “Where is Chelsea? I want to speak to her.” “Do you have my son?” de Lorean asked, that calm, smooth voice flowing through the phone lines like honey. “Are you ready to return him to me?” “Whatever it takes.” A bald-faced lie, yes. Garrett had no compunction about lying to a killer. “Good. Now, I want you to meet me–” “No way, de Lorean. Not until I talk to her.” There was a long pause. A ripple in the bastard’s unshakable calm? “All right.” Another pause, this one brief. “Garrett?” Every cell in his body came to life at the sound of her voice. “Chelsea, are you all right? Has he–” “I’m sorry, Garrett. This is all my fault. I was so–” “It’s not your fault,” he told her quickly. “I’m coming for you, Chelsea. It’s gonna be all right.” “No! Don’t do this, Garrett. Don’t risk your life for me. I’m not worth–” Her words were suddenly cut off. De Lorean’s voice came back on the line. “I wouldn’t advise you to take the lady’s advice, Brand. It could prove very unhealthy for her.” “If you hurt her, de Lorean, I swear to God–” “You’ll come alone,” the man continued as if Garrett hadn’t spoken. “If I get even an inkling you haven’t followed my instructions to the letter, I’ll put a bullet in Miss Brennan’s pretty face. The only person with you will be my son. Is that understood?” “Perfectly.” “Good. You’ll meet me in one hour at Thompson Gorge. Alone. When I have my son in my arms, I’ll release Miss Brennan. Then we can all go our separate ways. Agreed?” The creep was lying through his teeth. There was no way in hell he intended to let Garrett leave Thompson Gorge alive. The very fact he’d chosen a box canyon with only one way in and out, a place only accessible on horseback, was proof enough of that. Garrett swallowed his rage. “Agreed.” There was a click, and then the silence of a dead phone line. Garrett held the receiver in his hand for a long time. He had one chance, and one chance only. He had to get there first, find himself some cover and hope to God he could get Chelsea behind a rock before the shooting started. And he was going in alone. Leaving before Wes and Lash returned. They’d have no way of knowing where he’d headed. By the time they figured out where, he’d gone, if they ever did, it would all be over. Garrett put the phone down and crossed the room to unlock the gun cabinet. Lash knew something was up the second he and Wes walked into the empty house. Garrett had refused to leave the house with them in case Chelsea or de Lorean called. He wouldn’t have left now. Not unless…. Wes cussed, and Lash turned to see his black eyes narrow as he scanned the gun cabinet in the corner. “What is it?” Wes took off his Stetson and slammed it onto the back of the couch. “Some of the guns are missing. Two forty-fives and the Winchester. Dammit, de Lorean must have called early.” “But Garrett’s pickup is still out front.” Lash parted the curtains to look again, just to verify he’d seen the big truck the first time. “Come on.” Wes snatched his hat and strode out of the room. Lash followed. He had an inkling, but it was confirmed when Wes stomped out the door, crossed the front lawn and stopped at the corral where the horses grazed. The scowl on Wes’s face was all the confirmation Lash needed. “Garrett’s horse and saddle are gone. Damn him, he’s taken off on his own. I should have known better than to leave him for a second. The oversize, overprotective, damned–” “Who the hell…?” Lash interrupted Wes’s tirade when he saw the old pickup bounding into the driveway, passengers in both the front and back. Wes followed Lash’s gaze and started swearing all over again as the pickup came to a halt and people started piling out. Two men Lash didn’t recognize–one so big and blond that Lash thought he must be some out-of-time Viking, and the other smaller, but powerfully built and dark like Garrett. Then came Elliot. And Jessi. Pretty, stubborn, long-legged Jessi, with her jaw set and her chin up high. Looked like she was ready for a fight and more than willing. Wes continued swearing, but shut up when the two men approached, grim-faced. Jessi made a beeline for Lash. Her hand closed on his forearm, and she stood too damned close for comfort. The last thing he needed was hot-tempered Wes thinking Lash had eyes for his little sister. “Lash, these are my brothers, Adam and Ben,” Jessi said. “Guys, this is Lash. The one I told you about.” Oh, great, Lash thought. More Brand brothers. Just what he needed. “Where’s Garrett?” She turned her big brown eyes on Lash, and he thought he’d rather take on all her brothers than tell her. “Took off on his own,” Wes said, not too tactfully elbowing his way between them and taking Jessi’s arm. “I’m afraid he’s gone to meet de Lorean.” Her eyes widened, and the others muttered. “He’ll get himself killed, Wes. Why did you let him–” “I didn’t let him, Jessi. He gave us the slip the second we turned our backs. You know how he is.” “What the hell are we gonna do?” “Watch your mouth, Jessi,” the Viking told her. Ben, Lash reminded himself. “Look, we only know he didn’t go too far away. He took Duke,” Wes explained. “Duke can cover a lot of ground.” Jessi gnawed her lower lip…her very full and rather sensual-looking lower lip, Lash noticed, then kicked himself for noticing. She nodded twice, firmly. “Okay, we’ll have to track him. Wes, you and Ben go on inside and grab some weapons. Adam and Elliot, saddle up six horses. Lash and I will take a look and see if we can spot Duke’s tracks.” Adam and Ben exchanged surprised glances, maybe because of their baby sister’s take-charge attitude and no-nonsense tone. “Five horses,” Wes said, not moving a muscle. “Jessi, you’re staying here.” “The hell I am.” “The hell you aren’t.” The two faced each other, almost nose-to-nose. “Dammit, Wes, there’s not one of you who’s a better shot than I am and you all know it. Not to mention that I’m the best tracker. You gonna risk Garrett’s life just so you can keep your image of your innocent, helpless baby sister intact?” “Damn straight I am.” “Fine.” She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at him. “You all just saddle up and go on without me. Two minutes after you leave, I’ll be heading out on my own. And the way you guys read sign, I’ll probably find Garrett and this de Lorean jerk before you do. But I’m sure my big brother and I can handle it on our own. Don’t you worry about us.” Damn, but she was something else, this woman. Er, girl, Lash reminded himself. She couldn’t be very old. What, twenty-two or twenty-three at the most? Really just a kid. She sure as hell wasn’t acting like a kid, though. Wes was looking scared he might just lose this battle. “What about little Ethan?” he asked, and Lash recognized it as a last-ditch effort. “Safe and sound with Marisella. Now are you gonna stand here arguing while Garrett gets himself killed, or are we going after him?” “We’re going after him.” It wasn’t Wes who spoke, but Ben–the blond one. He came forward and put an arm around Jessi’s shoulders. “You’ve grown up, little sister.” “I’m glad somebody noticed,” she snapped. “Now let’s move. Come on, Lash. Let’s go look for those tracks.” “Help the boys saddle those horses, Lash,” Wes ordered. “I’ll help Jes look for the trail.” At his sister’s killing glance, he added, “It’s in my blood, sis. Don’t forget I’m half-Comanche.” He sent a sideways glance at Lash that said plainly he would also be willing to scalp his enemies should the need arise. Lash swallowed hard, walked to the corral and grabbed a saddle. Garrett crouched behind a boulder about five yards in from the canyon’s entrance. A steep, rocky wall rose at his back. There was another one just like it fifty yards to his right and another one across from him. On his left was the opening–the only way in. And the only way out. That was the direction he watched. De Lorean would have to enter from there. A couple of times, as he crouched there, Garrett heard the telltale clatter of pebbles and dirt tumbling down the canyon walls. Someone was on the ledge above, no doubt about that. Probably several someones. De Lorean’s men. The back of Garrett’s neck prickled, and his back felt sorely exposed. He didn’t think they’d seen him yet. But if they did, he would be an easy shot. And once they saw he didn’t have the baby, they wouldn’t hesitate. No breeze stirred in the canyon. It was darker here, Garrett thought, than any place on earth. No moon tonight. And though he could see a rectangle of star-dotted sky above him, its light didn’t make the place any brighter. Every sound echoed endlessly. The Comanche believed the place to be bad medicine. And no wonder. Many an ambush had occurred within these towering stone walls. A lot of blood had soaked the ground here. He looked up again, eyes scanning the rim. But it was too dark. Even if they were up there, he wouldn’t be able to see them. He crouched until his thigh muscles screamed, checked his watch time and again. Finally, ten minutes early, the headlights of a Jeep bounced into view. Garrett grimaced in surprise. De Lorean must have had the thing customized for rough terrain. No normal vehicle, even a four-wheel-drive one, could handle the trek out here. The vehicle came to a stop at the canyon’s entrance. The lights remained on, effectively blinding Garrett to the people beyond them. He only knew they got out when he heard the doors slam. And then he heard de Lorean’s voice. “Brand. Are you here?” “Turn off the lights,” Garrett replied. “Or you’ll never see your son.” De Lorean’s laugh was low and ominous, and it bounced from the stone and rolled through the canyon. “You’re in no position to be giving orders. Step out where I can see you.” Garrett drew a breath. “We can argue about it all night. I don’t move until the lights go out.” “I don’t think we’ll argue about it at all, Brand. You see, I have Miss Brennan, and I have a very short temper. Oh, but you can’t see me, can you? Well, then, listen.” Chelsea cried out. Not loudly. It was obvious she was struggling not to make a sound. But the bastard hurt her enough so the cry was torn from her throat, and Garrett’s stomach clenched so hard and fast he thought he’d vomit. If he stepped out from behind this rock, he was a dead man. The men on the rim above would pick him off so quick he’d never know what hit him. But if he remained hidden and safe, the bastard would torture Chelsea. Damn, if only he’d shut those headlights off. Garrett eyed a group of boulders closer to the canyon’s entrance and the wide stretch of coverless ground in between. If he could make it there, the lights wouldn’t be in his eyes. He might be able to get a shot. But he might not be fast enough. And for the first few yards, those head-lights would make him a sitting duck. Still, he had to try. Gritting his teeth, he pushed off and ran. True to her claim, Jessi Brand turned out to be one hell of a tracker. They picked up the trail right away and rode for all they were worth, only stopping when Wes held up a hand. The horses stopped in a cloud of dust as Wes tilted his head in a listening posture. “What is it?” Lash whispered. “I heard a vehicle.” “Thompson Gorge is up ahead,” Jessi said softly. “God, Wes, Garrett wouldn’t have gone in there, would he? He’d have to know it was a trap.” “He’d go,” Wes replied, his tone grim. “If it was for Chelsea, he’d go. Dammit, de Lorean will have snipers lining the rim of that godforsaken canyon.” “Not for long, he won’t,” Adam said. His eyes met each of his brothers in turn, making his meaning clear. Ben nodded his blond head in agreement. “We take them out. At least give Garrett a fighting chance.” “Leave the horses here,” Wes said. “We’ll go in on foot.” Elliot lifted the neatly looped rope from his saddle and ran his hands over it. He dismounted and the others followed suit. Lash got down, too, but his throat was suddenly very dry. “You…uh…we aren’t going to just kill them, are we?” Wes grinned at him. “Only if we have to. What’s a matter, Lash, you got a weak stomach?” “Shut up, Wes,” Jessi snapped. “Lash, we aren’t going to kill anyone. Contrary to first impressions, the Brands are not barbarians.” “Speak for yourself, Jes,” Wes returned sharply. But then his voice softened. “I don’t suppose I could convince you to stay here with the horses, could I?” Jessi shook her head firmly and poked a bullet into the chamber of her rifle to emphasize the point. Wes sighed hard, but started off at a quick, silent pace. When they could make out the shapes of horses in the darkness ahead, Wes whispered, “Fan out. Adam and Ben, work around to the far side of the canyon. Elliot and Lash, you take the end. Jes, you and I will work in from this side. Move in and take them out fast and quiet, then move on to see if you’re needed elsewhere.” “Seven horses,” Jessi whispered from her crouching position on the ground. “One of us will have to handle two men. Be ready for that.” They broke up and slowly worked their way around the canyon. Lash kept one eye on young Jessi. He was worried about her, and if he’d been her brother, he thought he’d have argued harder against her coming along. Not that it would have done much good. He could still make out her form in the darkness as she crept from boulder to bush, working her way closer and closer to the canyon’s edge. And when he looked off in the direction she moved, he saw a man standing there, his back to her, a rifle cradled in his arms. He shivered. Elliot’s elbow dug into Lash’s rib cage. “Pay attention to your own problems, Lash. Jessi can handle herself.” Lash followed Elliot’s pointed gaze and spotted two more armed men standing at the lip, about ten yards apart. Lash swallowed hard and started off after the closest man. He only turned once when he heard a soft, whirring sound. Then he saw Elliot’s rope sail through the night, settle around the second man, and jerk sharply backward. The man was yanked off his feet, landing hard on his back with a low grunt. Before he could utter a cry, Elliot had pounced on him. Lash heard the thud of knuckles connecting with flesh just once. The guy didn’t move again. Lash wanted to check on Jessi, but there was no time. He moved forward rapidly, and grabbed the man hard, one hand covering his mouth, the other pressing the gun barrel into his spine. “Not a sound, pal, or you’ll be singing with the angels.” The man nodded. Lash liberated the man from his weapon, then snatched the duct tape from his belt and managed to tear a strip off with his teeth. He sealed the man’s lips, then bound him hand and foot and left him on the ground. He quickly made his way back to where Jessi was just moving up on her target. He wasn’t close enough to intervene, though he tried to hurry. She moved like a panther, he thought as he watched her in awe. Those long limbs stretched out to bring her closer and closer to her prey, soundless and deadly. Not a hint of hesitation or fear. But damn, he couldn’t stand to see it and not try to help. He moved still faster and stepped on a twig. The snap seemed as loud as cannon fire. The man whirled on Lash, gun raised. Jessi launched herself at him. She landed on his back, knocking him facedown in the dirt, and his gun skidded away from him. She gave him one sharp crack on the head with the butt end of her rifle. Voices floated up from below. De Loiean’s. Garrett’s. Then Chelsea cried out in pain. Jessi ran to the edge, and Lash followed just in time to see Garrett’s fully illuminated form rush out from behind some rocks right into the open. From the corner of his eye, Lash spotted movement and turned to see another sniper raising his rifle, sighting in on Garrett. Lash took a single step, but it was unnecessary. A huge knife sailed out of nowhere, flying end over end and sinking deep between the sniper’s shoulder blades. The man groaned and sank to his knees. The rifle fell at his feet. Wes stepped out from behind some brush, came forward, bent down and yanked the bowie knife from the dead man’s back. Then he calmly wiped the bloody blade clean on a patch of crabgrass before replacing it in his boot. Below, in the canyon, Garrett dived behind another group of boulders. “You’re trying my patience, Brand!” De Lorean’s voice rang clearly from below, and then Chelsea screamed again. “Come on,” Wes whispered. “Let’s get over to the other side. That bastard keeps hurting her, Garrett’s gonna lose it and probably get himself killed.” The four of them ran around the back of the canyon, then crept up the other side. They only halted when they spotted Adam and Ben surrounded by four, not three, of de Lorean’s goons. “Damn, I must have missed a horse! I only counted seven sets of tracks!” Jessi shouldered her rifle. Lash saw her. Everyone else was too busy watching the fight. Seemed he was the only one whose eyes were constantly on Jessi. He covered her hands with his and pushed the gun down. “If de Lorean hears a shot, he might kill Chelsea then and there, Jes.” Wes’s head snapped around. “He’s right. The only way we can help Adam and Ben is if we can get close enough to jump the bastards.” “Help Ben, you mean,” Elliot whispered as they all moved closer. “Look.” A meaty fist had connected with Adam’s jaw, and he’d fallen backward, his head hitting a boulder. He didn’t move again. “I’ll kill that oversize son of a— “ Jessi’s threat was cut off then, because Ben seemed to launch himself into the air, kicking high with one leg, snapping one man’s head back so hard Lash thought he’d broken the guy’s neck. When he landed, Ben ducked another blow, rolled, sprang to his feet and grabbed another man. The man flew through the air and landed with a heavy thud. Ben never stopped moving. He whirled like a maddened dervish, and with his foot, his foot, he delivered so many rapid-fire, hard blows to the face that his lumberjack-size opponents were left teetering and blinking and dazed. And then, one by one they collapsed. Ben lowered his hands to his sides, turned and bent over his brother. The others joined him there. “Just what in the Sam Hill was that?” Wes demanded. But he, too, bent over the unconscious Adam, examining the cut on his head. “I’ve never seen a guy as big as you move like that!” “Just something I picked up,” Ben said. “Never thought I’d have to use it in a fight, though.” “What the hell else would you use it for?” Ben lifted his pain-filled eyes to meet Wes’s. “Peace,” he said softly. Lash knew, because Jessi had told him, about Ben’s short marriage to the woman he’d known was dying from the day he’d met her. And he knew Ben had taken off right after he’d buried his young wife. Gone into seclusion in the wilds of Tennessee. “Did it work?” Wes asked, his voice soft, husky. Ben lowered his eyes. “Not yet.” Adam groaned a little, and his eyes fluttered open. “You’d best not spend too much more time in New York City,” Wes said, gripping his hand and pulling him to his feet. “It’s making you soft.” “He caught me by surprise,” Adam argued, but he looked rather sheepish as he dusted himself off. From below in the canyon, Chelsea cried out again, and every eye turned in that direction. “We’d better get down there,” Jessi said. “And we’d better make it fast.” Chapter 15 De Lorean held Chelsea to his chest in a crushing grip, his head bent close to her ear. “He’s surrounded, you know. But you’d already guessed, that, hadn’t you? That’s why you’re trying so hard to keep quiet. Isn’t it, Chelsea Brennan? That’s why you’ve bitten your lip until it bleeds, because you know the second he steps into the open he’s a dead man. He’s going to join all the others who’ve died here in this canyon down through the ages. The Comanche say it’s haunted, you know. They say the spirits of the murdered still linger here.” He’d twisted her arm behind her back, trying to make her cry out. Trying to make her scream, so Garrett would step out of the sheltering rocks. And she’d clenched her teeth, refusing to make a sound. Until she’d felt the popping of her shoulder, and her cry had been wrenched from her unwilling lips. Garrett lunged from the cover of the boulders and dashed across an open expanse, and she would have shouted a warning if de Lorean’s hand hadn’t been clamped firmly over her mouth. His paw covered her nose, as well, and she couldn’t draw a breath. But the panic of not being able to breathe paled beside her fear for Garrett. She kept her gaze on him as he ran, fully expecting to see him cut down at any second. But somehow…somehow he made it. He dived behind another cluster of boulders, this one not bathed in white light as the other had been. De Lorean’s hand on her mouth eased its pressure, and she dragged a gulp of air into her lungs, then released it slowly in relief. She felt de Lorean’s head moving as he scanned the ledge above, and he cursed in hot whispers that made her skin crawl. Why hadn’t his men fired at Garrett? It was obvious he’d expected them to. Her shoulder screamed, though the pressure on it had eased. Her eyes watered, making it even harder to see through the inky darkness to where Garrett now crouched. De Lorean seemed to compose himself. He straightened a little, turning slightly so her body still remained directly between him and the boulders sheltering Garrett. A human shield, she thought, and hoped that wouldn’t stop Garrett from shooting. He ought to shoot right through her to get this bastard. But Garrett wouldn’t. He was no more like her father than she was. She accepted that knowledge slowly, with dawning wonder, though she guessed she’d known it all along. Garrett was nothing like her father. Nothing like de Lorean. Nothing like any other man she’d ever known. She’d thought she could never love a man because of all she’d witnessed of that gender. But she’d been wrong. “Very impressive, Brand,” De Lorean called, not so loudly as before since Garrett was closer. “But I didn’t see my son cradled in your arms as you sprinted past. And unless I see him soon, Miss Brennan is going to join her sister in death.” Garrett said nothing, didn’t make a sound. Chelsea was glad. No use in his giving those killers above anything to shoot at–not even the sound of his voice. Then de Lorean wrenched her already throbbing arm still higher behind her back. She hadn’t been expecting that, and she cried out again, but quickly bit down on the scream. Damn! The fingers of her right hand were within reach of her left ear, and they were tingling and slowly going numb. Sweat popped out on her face, trickling into her eyes, and pain made her breathing quick and shallow. It hurt! The entire right-half of her torso was on fire. Even drawing too deep a breath brought more intense pain. De Lorean gave one more tug, and dizziness swamped her. Her stomach convulsed, and her inability to move with the spasm only resulted in more agony. She thought she was going to vomit soon. “You’ll never see your son unless you let her go. Now, de Lorean! Let her go!” So he could see her now. She realized that, and as she did, she lifted her head and straightened up as much as her captor would allow and tried to force her facial muscles to relax. She didn’t want to look as if she was suffering. She didn’t want to do anything to help the lowlife who held her. “You didn’t bring him, did you, Brand?” de Lorean observed flatly. “I should have known better than to trust you.” “De Lorean–” “Pity. Now I’ll have to kill you both. I, you see, am a man of my word.” He lifted his gun to the side of Chelsea’s head. She felt the cold steel, the circular shape of the barrel pressing tight to her scalp. “No!” Garrett leaped out of his hiding place and ran forward. In slow motion, it seemed, de Lorean’s gun swung toward him, away from Chelsea, and his other arm fell away from her, as well. Leaving her free to sink to her knees in agony, or to run for her life. And in the split second she had to decide which to do, she knew that had been Garrett’s intention all along. To distract de Lorean and give her the chance to escape. To take the violence that was directed at her, to take it himself in her place. Just the way her mother had done. Rage filled her and escaped in the form of a tortured cry that sounded only half-human as it split the night and echoed from the canyon walls. Chelsea hurled herself at de Lorean while her battle cry still floated skyward, and at the instant she hit him, the gun he held spit fire and death. An earsplitting explosion was followed by the acrid scent of sulfur. Garrett jerked backward, his eyes wide, then closing as he staggered, teetered and fell like a giant redwood. Chelsea screamed, clinging to de Lorean’s back, kicking and clawing him with renewed vigor. De Lorean wrenched her free and slammed her to the ground. She landed on her wounded shoulder, the wind knocked out of her, and fought for breath even as she scrambled to her feet again. De Lorean walked forward slowly until he stood right over Garrett’s big, prostrate form. “Where is my son, you bastard!” But Garrett didn’t answer. “Die, then,” the monster said, and he pointed the barrel downward. She couldn’t get there in time. She couldn’t… Two things happened at once. A knife came flipping through the dark, and a lasso sailed into view. The blade embedded itself in de Lorean’s right arm, and he screamed aloud even as the lasso settled around him and was pulled tight. His gun fell and landed on Garrett’s chest, and Chelsea wondered for a moment if the spirits said to haunt this place had come to Garrett’s aid. Then with a jerk of that spectral rope, the criminal was yanked right off his feet. He landed with a thud and a grunt. And as Chelsea looked on, shocked, forms took shape in the darkness. She only realized they were actual human beings when she heard a voice she recognized. And then it didn’t matter. She ran forward to where Garrett had fallen, and flung herself on him, heedless of the raw pain slicing her shoulder to ribbons. The tears she cried dampened his face. But there was more on his face than just her tears. Blood. Lots of blood. So much she couldn’t even see his features. God, he’d been shot in the head. Chelsea went cold all over as nightmarish memories swamped her. For an instant she was a frightened little girl again, clinging to the lifeless body of her mother. That same sickening horror engulfed her now as she realized that her worst fears had come true. Garrett had stepped in to protect her, just as her mother had. And just as her mother had, he’d…. “No,” she whispered. She gripped his shoulders, shaking him. “No, Garrett. Not this time. Not you, too!” A warm hand closed on her shoulder. “Easy, Chelsea,” Wes said softly, bending over her, touching his brother with his other hand. “He’s still alive.” Chelsea collapsed on Garrett’s chest, sliding her arms beneath him and holding him to her as she sobbed in a terrifying mixture of relief and fear. “Please, Garrett. Please be all right. Just open your eyes and tell me you’re all right.” But he didn’t. And it took several pairs of hands to pull her away from his still body so his brothers could get close enough to inspect the damage, stanch the blood flow, then lift him into de Lorean’s Jeep. Jessi was there, climbing into the back with Garrett. And Lash, who told her he could help. Wes firmly guided Chelsea to the passenger seat, though she’d wanted to climb into the back with Garrett. Then Wes went to the driver’s side and started the vehicle. He shouted at his brothers through the open window. “Hog-tie that bastard and get him into town. Lock him up and notify the Rangers. If I stick around here, I’m liable to kill him. Leave the others. One’s dead, and the rest will keep. They aren’t going anywhere.” “Don’t worry, Wes, we can handle them. Take care of Garrett,” Elliot replied, sounding older than he ever had. And then the Jeep was bounding over the trackless ground. “…hospital,” Jessi was whispering in the back. “Moving him any more than we have to is liable to kill him, Jes,” Lash argued gently. “We can’t even see how bad the damage is! Let’s get him to the house and call for help.” Chelsea turned in her seat, reaching over it to lay a hand on Garrett’s face. She had to touch him, to cling to him, as if doing so could somehow keep him from leaving her. She closed her eyes, a feeling of dread such as she’d never known settling in the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t live with another death on her conscience. She simply couldn’t. And she found she didn’t really want to. Not without Garrett. Something was pressed into her free hand, and she glanced down to see a cellular phone. “Call for help, Chelsea,” Wes instructed. “Tell them to meet us at the ranch.” She blinked up at the hoarse tone of Wes’s voice and saw unashamed tears glistening on his dark lashes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Sorry?” He shook his head and reached for her, stroking, the hair away from her face with a gentleness that surprised her. “Hell, Chelsea, he’d have been dead for sure if it hadn’t been for you. De Lorean had him point-blank when you jumped on him. You saved my brother’s life. I’m not gonna forget that any time soon. None of us are.” “B-but…if it wasn’t for me, he wouldn’t be…he shouldn’t have…why didn’t he just….” Her throat closed then, making it impossible to speak. “Because it isn’t in him, that’s why.” Wes’s hand touched her good shoulder, squeezed a little. It reminded her of the way she might have touched her own sister once upon a time. A reassuring shoulder squeeze–sometimes it worked wonders. “Now stop your blubbering and make the call, okay?” He sniffed and took his hand away to knuckle his own eyes dry. Garrett’s head seemed to be engulfed in a cloud of pain. The waves of throbbing encompassed his skull and even reached down into the base of his neck. He couldn’t pin-point the epicenter from which the waves emanated. It hurt everywhere. And his brain didn’t seem to be functioning on all eight cylinders. Because it was a full minute before he heard the soft crying, and he still wasn’t sure where it was coming from. And it was still longer before he smelled the combination antiseptic-and-mothball aroma that seemed to cling to Doc wherever he went, or felt a pair of old, leathery hands pressing against his head and causing even more pain. It took even longer for him to think to open his eyes, and when he did, it took a while for his eyes to get the message. “He was lucky,” Doc was saying in his thick Spanish accent. “The bullet, it only grazed him. Lots of blood, but little damage.” “Guess we can call off the medevac chopper,” said a voice that sounded an awful lot like his brother Ben. “Hell, I can still use it. I think that jerk broke my jaw,” said another, that sounded an awful lot like his brother Adam. “So maybe you’ll learn to duck when some Neanderthal takes a swing at you.” Ah, now that voice made more sense. Wes. “Now, Señorita Brennan,” Doc said, “you will let me take a look at that shoulder of yours. And I will not take no for an answer this time.” “But, Doctor, he’s still unconscious.” Ah, that was Chelsea’s voice. The one he’d been waiting to hear. He sighed inwardly in relief. “Surely if it’s only a graze and not serious, he should be awake by now.” Gee, she sounded awfully worried about him. He tried to smile at the thought, but wasn’t sure if his facial muscles responded or not. “That bullet hit him like a hammer, Chelsea,” Jessi said softly. “He probably has a concussion, but–” “But nothing. I want him in a hospital! I want him x-rayed and CAT scanned and–” “Garrett, he will be fine,” Doc said. “His head is harder than the brick.” “You’re hurt, Chelsea,” Jessi coaxed. “Let Doc have a look at you.” That was, Jessi, all right. Always…. Wait a minute. Hurt? Chelsea was hurt? Garrett’s eyes opened wide, and he found it wasn’t quite the struggle it had been before. He fought to bring the room into focus. Not his room. The living room. He was at home at the ranch, sprawled on the couch like a sack of feed. Wetness coated his palm, and he shifted his focus to see ol’ Blue licking his hand. The dog looked back at him and whined. “Garrett?” Chelsea dropped to her knees right in front of him. He was relieved. Shifting his eyes around looking for her was making him dizzy. “Garrett, you’re awake.” Tear tracks marred her beautiful face, and her hair was even wilder than usual. Her swollen, puffy eyes searched his face, and she lifted one hand to his cheek. Her other arm hung oddly. She sort of clutched it against her side. And her shoulder looked funny. “You….” He licked his lips, swallowed hard and tried again. “You hurt?” “No. I wrenched my arm a little, but it’s fine. No big deal.” He didn’t think he believed her. But he had to know everything. “Bubba?” he asked when his painful scan of the room didn’t produce any signs of the child. “Marisella just arrived with him, Garrett. He’s upstairs napping. She’s watching over him. He’s fine. Just fine.” “De Lorean?” Garrett asked, angry that it took so much work to make his lips move. “In jail where he belongs,” Wes said. “And you can have all the time you want with your girlfriend here, big brother, but not until Doc takes a look at that shoulder of hers. And that’s an order.” Garrett frowned at her, gave her a nod, or tried to. “Go.” Reluctantly, Chelsea took her hand away from Garrett’s face and rose. Doc led her away, and Garrett tried to focus on Wes again, but found it difficult. Things were blurry and tough to look at for long. “Thought I heard the boys. Adam and Ben….” “That’s because we’re here,” Adam said, and took Chelsea’s former position beside the couch. “You didn’t really think Jessi and Elliot would follow orders, did you?” “And lucky for you they didn’t, you big lug,” Ben added, leaning over the couch from behind so that his shaggy blond hair hung forward. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know there were snipers lining that ridge.” Garrett smiled, but it felt as if only one side of his mouth was working. “Wondered…why they didn’t…pick me off.” “‘Cause we picked them off first,” Ben told him. “And don’t think baby sis didn’t get in on the act. She made at least one guy sorry he messed with this family.” “Yeah,” Jessi said from somewhere beyond Garrett’s range of vision. “Might say I Branded him.” Laughter surrounded him. Garrett relaxed a little because that sound, his sister and his brothers laughing in this living room, told him more than anything else ever could that everything was really all right. Finally all right. “That’s it, Garrett,” Ben said, his voice softening. “You go on back to sleep. Just don’t expect me to carry you up to your room. A hernia, I don’t need.” Another round of laughter, punctuated by a happy whine from Blue and the sound of Ethan’s gurgles as Marisella brought him down the stairs. He heard Chelsea speaking softly with Doc in the background. The kitchen, maybe. She sounded just fine. And he fell into a contented sleep. “Good,” she said. “You’re awake.” He blinked, noting first that Chelsea wore a sling on her arm, and then that she was freshly showered and dressed, and that her hair was tamed down a bit. He slanted his gaze toward the window. Late morning at the earliest. Gosh, how long had he slept? “Chelsea….” He stopped himself, noticing as he sat up that there was a suitcase on the floor beside her chair. His heart hurt worse than his head. And that was saying something. “I wanted to talk to you before I left. I’ve been waiting for hours.” She’d been crying. Not violently or hysterically like yesterday. But the signs were there. Her eyes started swimming again, even as he watched her. “That’s good, because I want to talk to you, too. I want to tell you–” “Wait.” She held up her good hand, and he fell silent. She bit her lip, looked at the ceiling, took a deep breath. “Just let me get this out, okay?” “Okay.” He leaned back on his pillows. “I need….” She cleared her throat and met his eyes again. “I need to thank you, Garrett.” “I’m the sheriff, Chelsea. It’s my job to rescue–” “No, not for that.” He frowned, but waited. “Garrett, before I met you I thought every man I ever met would turn out to be just like my father. You showed me…how wrong I was about that.” “That’s good to know.” “I was angry at first that all that…that courting you did was only an act. Just a ploy to keep me and Ethan here where we were safe. But even so–” “Now hold on a minute!” “Please, will you just let me finish?” He stared at her, jaw gaping, and decided it could wait. Maybe. At least until she’d let him get a word in edge-wise. He lifted his hand, palm up, to tell her to go on. She sighed, pushing her good hand through her hair. She rose from her chair and paced the room. “There’s more. I also never thought I could trust a man enough to…enough to be with him…the way we were the other night. But you showed me that I could.” Silence wouldn’t cut it anymore. “Chelsea, you tried to make me believe it didn’t mean anything. But I was your first, wasn’t I?” She nodded. “I lied. It meant something. But you really have to be quiet, Garrett, or I’m never going to get to the point here.” “I’m trying.” He smiled at her, and she closed her eyes as if in pain. “Is it your arm?” he asked, suddenly concerned. “No. The arm is fine, just a dislocated shoulder. Doc gave me something for the pain.” “Then why do you look like you’re still hurting?” She opened her eyes. “Quiet.” “I’m quiet. Go on.” She cleared her throat, then turned her back to him, pretending to look out the window. “I didn’t think I could ever love a man,” she said softly. “Dammit, Chelsea, it doesn’t matter.” He flung back the covers and swung his feet to the floor and, gripping the arm of the couch, stood up. “It’s selfish of me to ask you to. I don’t care, Chelsea Brennan.” He went up behind her, gripped her good shoulder and bent his head low, speaking soft and close to her ear. “I don’t care if you can’t love me the way I love you. I’ll take whatever you can give and count myself lucky to have it, honey. If only you’ll stay.” Chelsea went still. It was as if she’d frozen in place. “I thought,” she whispered, still not turning to face him, “that I asked you to keep quiet and let me finish.” Her voice wavered, and Garrett figured it was damned near time to give up hope. She was gonna shoot him down here and now. “Sorry,” he told her, giving her shoulder one last squeeze. “I had to get it said.” “I was trying to tell you, Garrett, that I never thought I could love a man.” She turned very slowly, and when she looked up into his eyes, hers were brimming with tears. A shaky smile toyed with her lips. “But you proved me wrong once again. Because I do. I love you, Garrett Ethan Brand.” The grin that split his face must have been a mile wide. Sure as hell felt like it was. “Hot damn! You do?” She nodded. “Then where the heck are you going?” “To bury my sister.” “But you’re coming back.” “If you…want me to.” “If I–hell, woman, I want you to wait for me to come along with you. I don’t you want you away from me ever again. I want….” Garrett kissed her like he’d never stop. But he did stop. Because he wasn’t finished talking yet. There was one more thing that needed to be said. He lifted his head, clasped her hand in his and lowered himself down on one knee. “You belong here, Chelsea. Do you know that yet? You’re good for this family, and I think the Brands are good for you, too. I want…I want you to marry me, Chelsea. I want you to stay right here on the Texas Brand as my wife, and I want Bubba to be my boy. I’ll love the two of you like nobody else ever could. I’ll make you happy. I promise you that.” She smiled down at him as her tears spilled over. “I’m gonna hold you to that promise, Garrett. Forever.” “Forever,” he echoed, and then he pulled her into his arms. -THE END- Click here to read an excerpt from the second book in the Texas Brands, The Baddest Virgin in Texas. The Oklahoma Brands The Brands Who Came for Christmas Brand-New Heartache Secrets and Lies A Mommy For Christmas One Magic Summer Sweet Vidalia Brand Prologue Maya Most people in Big Falls, Oklahoma, thought it must have been a case of immaculate conception when they saw me, Maya Brand—eldest of the notorious Vidalia Brand’s illegitimate brood—with my belly swollen and my ring finger naked. Personally, I thought it was more like fate playing a cruel joke. See, all my life, I had struggled to be the one respectable member of my outrageous family. I went to church on Sundays. I volunteered at the nursing home. I wore sensible shoes, for heaven’s sake! I never aspired to notoriety. I just wanted to be normal. You know. Normal. I wanted a husband, a home, a family. I wanted to be one of those women who make pot roast for Sunday dinner, and vacuum in pearls while it simmers. I wanted a little log cabin on the hillside behind my family’s farm, with a fenced-in backyard for the kids, and a big front porch. I wanted to sit down in one of the pews on Sunday and not have the three women beside me automatically slide their butts to the other end. And it had been starting to happen—before the big disaster blew into town. Bit by bit, I’d felt it happening. The PTA moms and church ladies in town had been slowly, reluctantly, beginning to accept me. To see me as an individual, rather than just another daughter of a bigamist and a barmaid. And it wasn’t that I didn’t love my mother dearly, because I did. I do! I just didn’t want to be like her. I wanted to be like those other women—the ones who were always asked to bake for the church picnic, who did their grocery shopping in heels, and who drove the car pools. The ones who slow-danced with their handsome husbands on anniversaries and holidays, and who took golf or tennis lessons with groups of their friends. They have minivans and housekeepers, manicured lawns and manicured nails, those women. What they do not have are mothers who own the local saloon, or sisters who ride motorcycles or pose for fashion magazines in their underwear. Still, I was certain my background was something that I could overcome with effort. And, as I said, my efforts had actually been working. Once or twice, one of those other women had smiled back at me in church. The ladies on the pew hadn’t moved so far away, nor quite as quickly, and one of them had even returned my persistent “good morning” one Sunday. Things had been going so well! Until that night…. That night. He ruined everything! Made me into the biggest (literally) and most scandalous member of my entire family! The good people of Big Falls have stopped gossiping about Kara being a jinx—then again, none of her boyfriends have wound up in the hospital from any freak accidents lately, either. They’ve stopped whispering about Edie, who found the success she chased to L.A. when she became a lingerie model for the Vanessa’s Whisper catalogue. Mom just about had kittens over that one. The locals used to speculate on Selene, because of her oddball customs and beliefs. Vegetarianism and Zen and dancing around outdoors when the moon was full, were not big in Big Falls. And Mel used to generate gossip for being too tough for any man, with her motorcycle and her unofficial job as bouncer at the OK Corral. That’s our family’s saloon; the OK Corral. Because we live in Oklahoma. Cute, huh? But the point is, no matter how much I wished that my sisters would conform, or that my mother would suddenly cut that wild black hair of hers to a style more fitting for a woman her age, and maybe convert the saloon into a restaurant like that nice Haggerty family a town away—none of their antics did as much damage to my standing in the community as that one night of insanity with that man. That drifter with the eyes that seemed to look right through my clothes. Right through my skin. I suppose, if I’m going to tell you about all this, I should probably start with him, and that night. See it all started just short of nine months ago…. Caleb How was I to know that one night of insanity would change my life forever? I mean, I was respectable, responsible, highly thought of. The Montgomerys of Oklahoma were known far and wide. We had money, and we had power. The name Cain Caleb Montgomery had a long and proud history. My father, Cain Caleb Montgomery II, served two terms as a U.S. senator. His father, Cain Caleb Montgomery I, served five. I am, as you have probably guessed by now, Cain Caleb Montgomery III. And already my political career was well underway. I had just stepped down from my second term as mayor of a medium-sized city. On the day all this insanity began, my entire future was being planned for me. My father and grandfather, and a half dozen other men—men whose faces you would recognize—sat around a large table plotting my run for the U.S. Senate. They discussed when and how I would declare my candidacy nine months from now, just a little before New Year’s Day. They discussed what I was going to stand for and what I was going to stand against. They didn’t discuss these things with me, mind you. They discussed them with each other. I was an onlooker. A bystander. They went on, telling me what I was going to wear, eat, and do on my vacations, as I sat there, listening, nodding, and growing more and more uneasy. And then they went too far. There we all were, in my father’s drawing room. Eight three-piece suits—seven of them straining at the middle—seated around a long cherry wood table that gleamed like a mirror. The place reeked of expensive leather, expensive whiskey and cigars of questionable origin. And all of a sudden, one of the men said, “Of course, there will be a Mrs. Montgomery by then.” “Of course there will!” my father agreed, smiling ear to ear. And I sat there with my jaw hanging. “Got anyone in mind, son?” A big hand slammed me on the back, and a wrinkled eye winked from behind gold-framed glasses. “No? Great. Even better this way, in fact. We can start from scratch, then.” And suddenly they were all talking at once, growing more and more excited all the time. “She should be blond. The latest analysis shows that blondes hold a slight edge over brunettes or redheads in public opinion polls.” “Of course, there’s always dye.” “Medium height. Not too tall.” “Yes, and not too short, or she’ll have to wear heels all the time.” “And of course, she has to be attractive.” “But not too attractive. We don’t want any backlash.” “Educated. Not quite as well as you, though, but that goes without saying.” “Well versed. She should have a good voice, nice rich tones. None of those squeaky ones. And no gigglers.” “Oh, definitely no gigglers!” “Sterling reputation. We can’t have any scandals in the family. That’s probably most important of all.” “Absolutely. No scandals.” “We can run background checks, of course. Just to be sure. And—” “Wait a minute.” They all fell silent when I finally spoke. Maybe it was because of the tone of my voice, which sounded odd even to me. I placed both my palms on the table and got slowly to my feet. And for the first time in my entire adult life, I let myself wonder if this was what I really wanted. It had been expected of me, planned for me, even from before I was born. Everything all laid out, private school, prep school, college, law school. And I’d gone along with it because, frankly, it had never occurred to me to do otherwise. But was it what I wanted? It shocked me to realize I wasn’t sure anymore. I just…wasn’t sure. Giving my head a shake, I just turned and walked out. They all called after me, shouting my name, asking if I was all right. I kept on going. I felt disoriented—as if, for just one instant there, a corner of my world had peeled back, revealing a truth I hadn’t wanted to see or even consider. The fact that there might be more for me out there. Something different. Another choice. Anyway, I went out that night looking to escape my name. My reputation. My identity, because I was suddenly questioning whether it was indeed mine. Everyone who knew me, knew me as Cain Caleb Montgomery III. CC-Three for short. Hell, without the name and the heritage, I didn’t even know who I was. I shed the suit. Dressed in a pair of jeans I used to wear when I spent summers on my grandfather’s ranch. God, I hadn’t been out there since my college days, and they barely fit anymore. I borrowed the pickup that belonged to our gardener, José. He looked at me oddly when I asked but didn’t refuse. And then I just drove. Maybe it was fate that made me have that flat tire in Big Falls, Oklahoma, on the eve of Maya Brand’s twenty-ninth birthday. Hell, it had to be fate…because it changed everything from then on. Although I wasn’t completely aware of those changes until some eight and a half months later. But really, you have to hear this story from the beginning. It all began nine months ago, on the day I began to question everything in my life…. Chapter 1 April Fools’ Day Maya had always been of two minds about working at the saloon. Of course, it wasn’t a five-star restaurant, or even a respectable club. It was where the ordinary folk liked to come to unwind. You would never see the church ladies or the PTA moms on the leather bar stools munching pretzels and sipping beer at the OK Corral. But they didn’t have to see Maya waiting tables to know she worked there. It was a small town. Everyone in Big Falls knew she was a barmaid. And it probably didn’t do her efforts at becoming respectable much good at all. But the thing was, this was the family business. It put food on the table. And it was an honest business, and one her mother had worked hard to make successful. It meant a lot to Vidalia Brand. And respectability or no, family came first with Maya. Always had. That was the way she’d been raised. So she helped out at the OK Corral, just as her sisters did. Well, all except for Edie. Edie was off in L.A. chasing her own dreams. And respectability didn’t seem to be too high on her list. Anyway, April Fools’ night started out like any other Saturday night at the Corral. Kara helped in the kitchen, where her frequent accidents were heard but not seen. Selene waited tables, so long as no meat dishes were ordered. Mel tended bar and served as unofficial bouncer. And Maya did most of the cooking, and gave line dancing lessons every Tuesday and Saturday. In fact, the only thing that truly set this particular Saturday night apart from any other was that it was Maya’s last Saturday as a twenty-eight-year-old woman. On Sunday, she would turn twenty-nine. And twenty-nine was only twelve months away from thirty. And she was still single, still alone. Still an outcast struggling to make herself acceptable. Still living with her mother and working at the Corral. Still…everything she didn’t want to be. Still a virgin. So she was depressed and moody, and she’d sneaked a couple of beers tonight, which was totally unlike her. As a result, she was just the slightest bit off the bubble, as her mother would have put it, as she walked out of the kitchen. Wiping her hands on her apron, she strained her eyes to adjust to the dimmer light in the bar. Dark hardwood walls and floor, gleaming mahogany bar, sound system turned down low for the moment. Just enough to create a soothing twang underlying the constant clink of ice and glasses, the thud of frosted mugs on the bar, and the low murmur of working men in conversation. The light fixtures were small wagon wheels suspended over every table, a bigger one way up in the rafters dead center. Dimmer switches were essential, of course. The only time the lights got turned up to high beam was when they closed the doors to clean up. The row of ceiling fans over the bar whirred softly and tousled her hair when she walked underneath them. And then she looked up. And he was there. He’d just come through the batwing doors from the street outside. He stopped just inside them, and he looked around as if it was his first time at the Corral. And as Maya looked him over, she thought he seemed just about as depressed and moody as she was. “Now that looks like a cowboy who’s been rode hard and put away wet one too many times,” Vidalia said near her ear. Maya started. She hadn’t even heard her mother come up beside her. And though she tried to send her a disapproving glance for her choice of words, she found it tough to take her eyes off the man. “Who is he?” she asked. “I don’t recognize him.” Vidalia shrugged. “I don’t either.” He wasn’t tall, but he wasn’t short. Not reed thin or overweight or bursting with muscle. Just an average build. He had dark hair under a battered brown cowboy hat that bore no brand name or markings she could detect. His jeans were faded and tight as sin. His denim shirt was unsnapped and hanging open over a black T-shirt with a single pocket. Even his boots were scuffed and dusty. But none of that was what made her so unable to look away. It was something about his face. His eyes, scanning the bar as if he was looking for something, or someone. There was a quiet sorrow about those eyes. A loneliness. A lost look about the man, and it touched off that nurturing instinct of hers from the moment she saw it. She walked closer without even knowing she was doing it, and those lonely eyes fell on her. Blue. They were deep blue. So blue she could see that vivid color even in this low lighting. His lips curved up in a fake smile of greeting, and she forced hers to do the same. But the smile didn’t reach his eyes. They still looked as sad as the eyes of a motherless pup, and they latched on to hers as if she was his last hope. “Can I help you with something?” she asked him at last. He shrugged. “Can I get a beer?” he asked. “Well now, this is a saloon.” She took his arm for some reason. Kind of the way you’d take hold of a stranger lost in a storm, to lead him home. “Mister, your shirt’s wet through.” “That’s because it’s raining outside.” “Yes, but when it’s raining outside, most people stay inside.” She took him to a table near the fireplace. It was in the area where the line dancing lessons would be starting up in a little while, but the man was chilled to the bone. He had to be. He took the seat she showed him and looked at her sheepishly. “I had a flat on my pickup. Had to change the tire in the rain.” “I’d have let it sit there until it let up.” “I hear it hasn’t let up in days.” “You have a point. Our weather’s been nothing short of freakish this year.” She signaled Selene, who came right over. “Hot cocoa. Bring a whole pot.” “Um, I asked for a beer.” “It’s your call, of course. But beer will make you even colder. You want to catch your death?” He blinked up at her, then shrugged in surrender. “And see if you can find a dry shirt kicking around, will you, Selene?” Maya called. Selene nodded, tilting her head as she examined the stranger. Of them all, she was the most strikingly different. Her hair was long, lustrous, perfectly straight and silvery blond. Her eyes were palest blue, so they, too, often seemed silver. They seemed silver now, as she narrowed them on the man. “You new in town?” Selene asked him. “Just passing through,” he told her. Selene’s gaze slid from his face, to her sister’s. “That’s odd. I got the feeling you were here to stay.” She shrugged, tipping her head sideways, and said, “Oh, well,” as she turned to hurry away. The stranger sent Maya a questioning glance. “This month she’s convinced she has ESP,” she explained. “Last month she was exploring her past lives in Atlantis.” He grinned widely. “Your sister?” he asked. “How’d you guess?” “There’s a resemblance.” Maya smiled back at him, feeling warm all over just from the light of his smile. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” “You were meant to.” There was something in his eyes that made her heart quiver. She cleared her throat, searched for something to say, and came up with the lamest line ever uttered in any bar in any town, ever. “So, where are you from?” His smile died. All at once, just like that. He lowered his eyes, cleared his throat “Umm…a long ways from here. You wouldn’t know it.” “Try me.” She wasn’t sure why she said it. Curiosity, she supposed. She wanted to know his story. What had hurt him. What had sent him out into the dark rainy night to a strange town, a strange bar, a strange woman…. He looked up again. Seemed about to say something. Then seemed to change his mind. “Tulsa. I’m from Tulsa.” “Well, now, Tulsa’s not that far away. And I’m pretty sure everyone in this room has heard of it.” She smiled gently at the way his eyes widened and he looked around. “Hey, don’t look so nervous. I’m not gonna tell anyone where you’re from if you don’t want me to.” His gaze met hers again. “I appreciate that.” “Are you in some kind of trouble?” she asked. He shook his head slowly. “I’m not wanted or anything, if that’s what you mean.” The reply that popped into her head was that he most certainly was wanted. Right now. By her. But she bit her tongue and didn’t speak. The fire snapped, and its scent made her nostrils burn. The glow from the flames painted his face in light and shadow, and she took advantage of the chance to explore it more thoroughly. He had a straight nose that began high and was on the large side. It made her think of royalty, that nose. His jawline was sharply delineated, and strong, and he hadn’t shaved in several hours. A soft dusting of dark whiskers coated his cheeks and his chin. Reaching up, she took off his hat, again moving without thinking first. It was unlike her to be this forward with anyone. But she took the hat off, and it was wet. His hair underneath, though, was dry. Brown and fire-glow red in places, when the firelight hit it. It was thick, wavy, but short. If it grew long, she thought, it would be curly. But short it couldn’t be. He kept it that way to keep it tame, she mused. He liked control. And now who was pretending to have ESP? “Stealin’ my hat, ma’am?” he asked, his voice very soft, very deep, and stroking her nerve endings like callused fingers on velvet. “Umm…it’s wet.” Turning away to hide the rush of heat to her face, she hung the hat on one of the pegs beside the fireplace. Then she spoke to him over her shoulder, avoiding his eyes. “Might as well hang that shirt up here, too,” she told him. His reply came from close beside her. “If you say so.” A second later, his damp denim brushed her arm as he leaned in close to her to hang it up beside his hat. His shoulder was pressed to hers, his hip. He looked down slowly, and his mouth was only inches from hers as he turned toward her…. “Ahem!” Maya jumped and the stranger spun. “Your cocoa is here,” Selene said, her mysterious silver eyes sliding from one of them to the other. She put the pot on the table, set a cup beside it and tossed a Denver Broncos sweatshirt over the back of the chair. “It belongs to a friend of mine, so make sure I get it back.” “Thanks,” the man said. He took the sweatshirt and pulled it on over his T-shirt, arms first then poked his head through and sat back down. Selene stood there watching the two of them intently. “That’ll be all, Selene,” Maya said. Sighing, looking very deep in thought, Selene turned and left them. “Selene, hm?” the stranger said. “Fits her.” “You think?” “Sure. Mystical. Lunar. Isn’t it the name of some Greek moon goddess or something?” “Could have been. Mom used to read lots of mythology.” “So?” She blinked, saw him looking at her, and, finally, read his eyes. “Oh. Maya. My name is Maya Brand.” His brows went up. “As in the Earth Mother goddess,” she explained. “And does it fit?” “Oh, I’m a long way from being anyone’s mother. I’m still…I mean, I…” She bit her lip. “You haven’t told me your name yet.” He averted his eyes. “Caleb.” “Just Caleb?” He didn’t answer. Then she looked at her watch. “I have to go start the line dancing lesson.” He met her eyes, held them. Then, slowly, he got to his feet. “That’s great. I’ve always wanted to learn line dancing.” Oh, hell. This was not good, whatever it was. She was waiting for a respectable man, with a position of authority. Someone so established that being his wife would set her firmly into the midst of the “good people” of Big Falls and no one would ever think of brushing her off again. She didn’t want to get involved with a dirt-poor drifter who couldn’t even afford a decent pair of boots. And especially not a man who was just passing through. Above all else, Maya wanted a man she could depend on. A man who would be there for her, no matter what. One who would climb mountains, swim oceans, if that was what it took to be there when she needed him. A man who would be as honest and loyal and true as…as some silver screen cowboy from days gone by. What she didn’t want was a drifter or a liar or a cheat. A man like her father, who had never once been around for her mother when the chips were down. A man whose exploits had shamed his entire family so much they were still trying to live them down—even though he’d been dead for over twenty years. And yet this man—who was already hiding something, keeping some secret behind his blue, blue eyes, and who was obviously a drifter and poor as a church mouse—this man was the one to come along and cause her circuits to overload. Go figure! It must be physical attraction, she reasoned. Some chemical thing that she had no control over. But whatever it was, it was powerful. And its timing was damn near uncanny. Especially when she’d only just tonight been bemoaning the fact that she was a year from thirty and still a virgin. Untouched. Untempted…until now. Now she was extremely tempted to forget her morals and her ethics and her goals in life for one brief fling with a man whose eyes told her clearly he would be willing to oblige. She’d never been so powerfully drawn to a man in her life. Or maybe it was just the beer. Chapter 2 Maya Brand, he thought as he watched her across the table, pouring his cocoa and stirring it absently and looking at him as if…as if she couldn’t look at him enough. Caleb knew he was running away. Shirking his responsibilities, worrying his father sick, more than likely, and letting a lot of people down. He knew that. And he knew it couldn’t go on. He had to go back. To pick up the legacy and carry it forward. It was what was expected of him. His life plan. He’d worked for these goals for years, and it was all coming together finally. In just over a year he would announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. He would step into the shoes of his father and grandfather. He would fulfill his destiny. He didn’t know why the hell he’d put on these clothes or borrowed José’s pickup or driven clear out into some hole-in-the-wall town. Last minute jitters? A sudden attack of nerves? A desire to sabotage his own success? Whatever it was, he’d arrived at the door of this little saloon angry, wet, and confused. But this…this was something different. Maya Brand was an exceptionally beautiful woman. Oh, not the way most people would think of beauty. Her hair, for example. It wasn’t “done” or sprayed. Its color wasn’t artificial, but a deep mink brown. It was long and wavy, but not curly, exactly. It fell over her shoulders. She didn’t fuss with it. Her face…was clean. So clean he could see the slight sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose. Very slight. But there, not covered by makeup. Her shape was not bone thin. She was curvy. Wider at the hip than most women would probably like to be or see as ideal. On her it was good, especially in the snug-fitting jeans she wore. He wanted to rest his hands just above her hips and hold her close to him. But the most attractive thing about her, he realized with the part of his mind that was still functioning on some rational level, was that she didn’t have a clue who he was. She didn’t look at him and see Cain Caleb Montgomery III, heir to millions, former mayor, future senator. She didn’t see anything but a man in dusty boots and worn-out jeans. And it seemed to him that she liked him anyway. Why? It puzzled him and drew him. What was there about him that she could see to like? He’d been Cain Caleb Montgomery III for so long he wasn’t sure who plain old Caleb was anymore. And he suddenly found he wanted to know. And he thought maybe this woman might be able to show him. She went to the center of the floor, where a small crowd had already gathered. Men in their best blue jeans and western shirts with pearl snaps. Women in short skirts and cowboy boots. Caleb had never line danced in his life. He figured he would probably make a fool of himself. But it would be worth it just to have an excuse to get close to Maya Brand. She stepped to the front of the room, looked around, and then glanced at him almost reluctantly. Everyone else had a partner. Everyone but him. He shrugged. “Looks like you’re stuck with me.” She smiled, not just to be polite, he thought. “You say that like it’s a bad thing. Come here.” Damn, he liked the way she said “Come here.” He moved to stand beside her at the head of the class. Maya waved to the woman at the far end of the bar. The woman at the bar waved back. She looked like a shorter, curvier version of Sophia Loren. Exquisite bone structure, dark coloring. Mexican, he thought. She had a head of raven curls that reached to her waist and a few laugh lines around her eyes that only added to her appeal. Maya called, “Crank it, Mom. Let’s start ‘em with the Boot Scoot.” Caleb blinked and looked at Maya. “Mom?” “If you’re gonna look so shocked, Caleb, you really ought to do it when she’s up close enough to enjoy it,” Maya told him. “She’s your mother,” he said, still not believing it. ‘‘Vidalia Brand, mother of five, and the most notorious female saloon owner in seven counties,” Maya told him, and there was more than a hint of pride in her voice and in her eyes. “Wow.” The music came up, and he had to focus on Maya’s instructions and try to imitate her footwork for a time. It was okay, though, because he had to get up close beside her and, every once in a while, hold her hand or slip his arm around her waist, so he didn’t mind at all. And every time he looked down at her, her eyes were sparkling and staring right up into his. And her cheeks were pink with color, her lips full and parted as she got a little breathless. He hoped not entirely from the dancing. Once he had the moves down, they ran through the dance again, without stopping after each step to explain the next one, this time. And though he got lost once or twice, he had it down soon enough, so he could resume the conversation. “Mother of five, you said.” Maya nodded. “So the cute one with the short, raven hair who’s tending bar and sending me daggers would be…?” “That’s my sister Melusine. She’s kicked the stuffing out of some of the baddest men in town. Some of them for far less serious offenses than calling her cute.” He lifted his brows. “But she’s so small.” “She’s strong and she’s fast, and most importantly, she’s mean. Hot tempered anyway. Rides a motorcycle and takes karate lessons. Goes rock climbing. She’s a year younger than me, but she kind of sees herself as the protector of the bunch. Guess she figured if our father wasn’t around to do it, someone had to.” He nodded, searching her eyes. There had been a flash of pain when she’d mentioned her father. “Would I be out of line if I asked what happened—to your father, I mean?” She smiled up at him as they moved to the music. “Stick around this town more than five minutes and you’ll hear all about it. It’s the juiciest gossip Big Falls has ever had.” “Yeah?” “Oh, yeah.” “I’m intrigued.” “Most everyone is.” The music stopped, the dance ended. Maya turned to her group. “Ten-minute break. You know the drill.” Some of them wandered off to tables, the rest room, the bar, while others just stepped closer together and wrapped their arms around each other as a slow, sad song came wafting from the speakers. Before Maya could turn to go, Caleb slid his arms around her waist and pulled her close, started moving her slowly in time to the steel guitar. She tilted her head curiously but didn’t pull away. She put her arms around his neck and smiled a little nervously. “Tell me about your father,” he urged her. He wanted to know all about this woman for some reason. Why did she so intrigue him? Was it because she was exactly the opposite of the political wife his father and the others had described to him? Or was it something more? She shrugged. “Okay. It’s public knowledge, anyway. My father met my mother when she was seventeen. They had a brief affair, and then he went his way and she went hers. By the time she found him again to tell him she was pregnant, he was on the East Coast with a wife of his own. Still, time passed, and he came back. Told Mom things hadn’t worked out with his first wife, that they’d split up, and he asked her to marry him. She did.” “Doesn’t sound so scandalous to me,” he said. He was listening as much to the sound of her voice as to her story. Her tone was deep, rich. Erotically husky. “Well, that’s because I haven’t gotten to the scandal yet. See, Daddy-Dearest wasn’t divorced from his first wife at all. Not even separated from her. For ten years he managed to get by with two families. He traveled all the time on business—or we thought it was on business. What he was doing was dividing his time between the wife he had in Silver City and the one he had here in Big Falls, Oklahoma.” “He was a bigamist?” She waggled her brows. “Told you it was scandalous.” “So what happened?” he asked. “Where is he now?” Maya lowered her head. “He got involved with a bad crowd in Silver City. In the end he tried to mess with the wrong people and was murdered, along with his wife. I never did learn what became of the two kids he had with her. It was only after he was dead that we found out about his other life. By then my mother had five daughters, every last one of us illegitimate. I was young at the time, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It damn near destroyed Mom.” She lifted her head, looked across the room with admiration in her eyes. “But she came through it.” “She must be one hell of a woman,” he said. She looked up at him. “She is.” “And she’s raised one hell of a daughter,” he said. She lowered her head quickly. “You don’t know me well enough to say that.” “I know you well enough to know that I’d like to know you better, Maya Brand. I’d like that a lot.” Thick lashes lowered; then she glanced up from beneath them. “I…think I’d like that, too.” “I’m awfully glad to hear that.” He leaned in closer, intending to steal a kiss, but she artfully turned her face away before he could accomplish that. When he lifted his head again, he felt eyes on them from everywhere in the bar, and he thought maybe that was why. Her sisters, her mother—and for some reason, every customer in the place—seemed to be watching them intently. Okay. So he was going to have to get her alone if he wanted to do anything more than dance with her. It shouldn’t be a problem. Nothing he’d ever wanted in life had been difficult for him to have. Especially women. He stopped himself then. This was different. Always before he’d been Cain Caleb Montgomery. Everyone knew the Montgomerys always got what they wanted. It was a patriarchal dynasty, practically his birthright. Here, tonight, he was just Caleb. And she was like no other woman he’d ever met. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I was out of line.” She lifted her face to his, and he was tempted to get out of line again. “I can’t kiss a man who hasn’t even told me his last name, Caleb,” she said. And he got a feeling—a feeling that the way he answered that one, simple question might easily have some great impact he would feel for a long time to come. It was one of those moments when you just sense things looming—like a crossroads. More than anything, he wanted this delicious anonymity to go on. He’d learned more about her—and about himself—in the last couple of hours than he ever would have or could have as Cain Caleb Montgomery III. So he made his choice. He chose to lie to her. “Cain,” he said. “My name is Caleb Cain.” She thought he was looking less heartsick than he had when he’d arrived. And she hadn’t minded dancing with him at all. Sure, he was a drifter, on the skids, and from out of town. Sure, he barely had two nickels to rub together, from the looks of him. But tomorrow was her damned birthday, and he was drop-dead good-looking. His touch made her tingle, and she really was getting tired of being good all the time. No steady boyfriend, no prospects in sight. Hell, one more year and she would be a thirty-year-old virgin. Being the good one was not turning out at all the way she had hoped it would. So if dancing real close and real slow with a handsome stranger was bad, well, then she would be bad. Just for this once. She ignored the look of surprise on her mother’s face when she lifted her head from his shoulder to see her across the room. She ignored the way Vidalia elbowed Mel and pointed at her, and the way Mel’s brows came down hard, and the way Selene folded her arms and nodded knowingly, while Kara peeked out of the kitchen looking curious and excited for her. She ignored everything except the man she was with. And how good and strong his arms felt wrapped tight around her. His breath tickled her ear and her neck, and she grew warmer. She might very well be good, and respectable, and pure. But she was also a woman. A Brand woman. And never had she felt it more than she did in this stranger’s arms. At some point later, she realized she was laughing. Laughing out loud up at him, and he was laughing, too. Her skin was warm, and her heart was racing, and she felt incredibly alive. He walked her back to his table, eyed the now cold cocoa and said, “Am I allowed to have a beer now?” “Sure you are. In fact, I think I’ll join you.” She held up two fingers, not even looking toward the bar. “Think someone saw you?” he asked. She winked. “Believe me, they haven’t taken their eyes off me since you walked in.” Then she pursed her lips. “On second thought, I’d better get that beer myself. They’re liable to water it down or something.” He looked surprised but said nothing as she went to the bar. When she came back, he was deep in conversation with one of her regulars, a local fellow by the name of Jimmy Jones, but they stopped talking the minute she arrived, and Jimmy tipped his hat to her and skulked away, never meeting her eyes. She set two foaming mugs and a filled pitcher on the table, then sat down and sipped from one. “So what was Jimmy telling you about me?” “What makes you think he was talking about you?” She thinned her lips, lowered her brows, gave him the look. She’d learned the look from her mom, and she was pretty good at delivering it, in her opinion. All the Brand women were. He smiled. “Okay. You win. He was. He said you come from a wild family. That you Brand girls are the talk of the town.” “Oh, but I already told you about our notoriety.” He smiled. “You left out some things.” She sat down, grinning. “I’m dying to hear. What did he say?” Tilting his head to one side, Caleb’s smile faded. “I don’t want to say anything to ruin the night for us, Maya. It’s been…too nice.” She drew her brows together, turning to look at Jimmy, who immediately looked away. “My goodness. It must have been pretty bad.” “No, it really—” She reached across the table, clasped his hand and said, “I’ve been putting an awful lot of effort into making myself respectable in the eyes of the good people of this town, Caleb. It would help me a hell of a lot if you’d be honest with me right now. What did Jimmy say about us?” He cleared his throat, turned his hand over and closed it around hers. “He seems to think Selene is either a Communist, a Satanist, or both.” She laughed. It came out in a burst, and she clapped a hand over her mouth. Then she took a long drink of beer and said, “She’s a vegetarian and a feminist who believes in UFOs, Bigfoot and reincarnation. I suppose that does make her a Communist and a Satanist in Jimmy’s eyes.” “You have a beautiful smile, you know that?” She felt her face heat. “Stop changing the subject. What else did he say?” He drew a breath. “He seems to think one of your other sisters is…uh…cursed somehow. A ‘jinx’ is the way he put it.” Again her smile didn’t falter. “That would be Kara. She’s somewhat accident-prone—and, I have to admit the men she dates seem to have a tendency to…get hurt But it’s just a string of bad luck.” She frowned. “I hope the jerk doesn’t let her hear him say something like that.” “If he does, I’ll punch him in the nose for you.” She smiled. “You won’t have to. Mel will.” “Mel. Right Jimmy thinks she’s a sex fiend. He didn’t say it flat out, but he implied she was into whips and dog collars. A dominatrix type.” She rolled her eyes. “It would serve Jimmy right if I told Mel what he said. He’s still pissed because she broke his nose last year when he got fresh with Mom.” He nodded. “Then it’s safe to say you don’t have a sister who’s a porn star?” Her jaw dropped. “Edie is a lingerie model in L.A. Quite a successful one, too. But no, she’s no porn star.” “Probably a big relief to your mom,” he said lightly. “Not really. To Mom, there’s not that much of a distinction between the two. They haven’t spoken since Edie left home.” She pursed her lips, then sipped her beer and set the mug down. “So? What did our friend Jimmy have to say about me?” Caleb’s eyes shifted away from hers. “Nothing.” “Oh, come on, Caleb. Of course he said something about me. What would have been his point in talking to you at all if not about me? Hm? You’re not here with Edie or Mel or Kara or Selene tonight. You’re with me. So what did he say?” He shook his head slowly. “He…told me I might as well give it up and go look elsewhere for fun tonight. Told me you don’t date, don’t even like men.” She leaned back in her chair, took a long pull of her beer. “Well now, this is interesting. I’ve been wondering what the locals are thinking and saying about me.” He licked his lips, looked away from her. “What?” she asked, coming upright again. “What’s that look?” “What look?” he asked, still not meeting her eyes. “That look! There it is again! Jimmy Jones said something else, didn’t he? He told you what they’ve been saying about me around town. Didn’t he, Caleb?” Sighing deeply, he finally looked at her. “You don’t want to know, hon. Trust me on this one.” “Of course I want to know. I’ve been bending over backward to become socially acceptable around here. Hell, this is the first real chance I’ve had to find out how my efforts are panning out. So spill it, Caleb. Tell me what he said.” Caleb pursed his lips. “It’s not gonna make you happy, Maya. And it seemed to me you were starting to enjoy yourself a little bit. You sure you want to ruin all that?” “Tell me.” He nodded, took a drink of beer, licked the foam off his lips. Made her tummy tighten in response. She took another drink of her own, and he spoke. “He said that as near as anyone can figure, you must be one of two things. Either you’re frigid or you’re gay.” Maya choked and sprayed beer like a geyser. It hit Caleb square in the chest and rained down on the table between them. He jumped up automatically, arms out at his sides as the beer dripped from his borrowed sweatshirt. Maya grabbed a napkin and lunged at him, dabbing his chest, wiping his chin. “God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” He stilled her hands, took the napkin from them and lifted it to gently wipe the beer from her lips. Maya went still, lowering her eyes. “I shouldn’t have told you,” he said softly. “No. No, I needed to know the truth.” “If it helps any, I told Jimmy that if he said another word, I’d knock his teeth out.” She smiled, but it felt weak. “I appreciate that.” “Why does this hurt you so much, Maya? Why do you care what some ignorant fool like Jimmy Jones thinks of you, anyway?” Closing her eyes, she shook her head slowly. “I’ve been trying to be the good one. The responsible one. Trying to be good enough for the upper crust residents of Big Falls.” She closed her eyes, shook her head. “Trying to be something I guess maybe I’m not and never will be.” She sat back down. So did he. “Hey. Maybe you don’t fit in with those kinds of people, Maya, but don’t ever think it’s because you aren’t good enough.” She looked across the table at him, smiled a little. “Thanks for that.” “I meant it. But for the rest of it—I know what you’re going through.” “You do? You’ve been trying to be respectable, too?” He shrugged and seemed to think about it. “More like I’ve been trying to live up to other people’s expectations of me.” “While I’ve been trying to live them down.” He smiled at that. “And the results so far have been pretty lousy.” She drew a breath, sighed. “I’m a saint. I live like a nun, but nobody gives me any credit for it.” “I’m expected to live my whole life according to someone else’s plan. I’ve never even questioned it, so they assume I never will.” She drank her beer, surprised to see the bottom of the glass so soon. She was even more surprised when he refilled it for her. “I, um…I don’t drink very often,” she said. “Me either,” he said. “But tonight I’m going to do what I want, instead of what other people want me to do. If I want to drink, I’m going to drink. So there.” She pursed her lips, tilted her head. “Yeah. You know what? Me too.” She took a nice long drink. Then she glanced out at the floor, where her dancers were getting ready to begin again. “Ready for round two?” she asked him. “You lead, lady, and I’ll follow.” She did lead. She led him out onto the dance floor, then back to the table for two more beers when the line dancing was done. And then she was on the dance floor with him again when a slow song came on, and everything was different. He held her closer, tighter, than she had ever been held in her life, and he said softly, “I’m liking this way too much, Maya.” She said, “I am, too.” “Yeah?” She nodded, looking up into his eyes, liking what she saw there. Feeling the sting of all her efforts to be respectable having failed, the depression over her impending birthday, and the effects of too much beer, she knew she was in trouble tonight. And she didn’t even care. “You want to get out of here?” he asked her. She nodded. “Yeah…I do.” His smile was slow, but gentle somehow. “Your family…?” She glanced toward the bar. Her younger sister, Mel, was looking decidedly violent just now. Leaning on the hardwood, watching them through narrow eyes. Her short, dark hair and pixie-like features hid an explosive temper and a body to match. Maya felt warm all over in spite of that cold surveillance. Then she frowned at Caleb as a thought occurred to her. “Are you okay to drive?” “I’ve only had two beers all night, hon. And the second one’s still half full.” He nodded toward his mug on the table. “But how about you?” “It’s my birthday,” she said, and that was her only reply. He frowned. Then he looked at her empty mug on the table, and she could almost see him mentally counting how many beers she’d had tonight. Then, licking his lips and sighing deeply, he looked at her again. He said, “As much as I hate to say this, Maya Brand, I think we ought to call it a night. Tell you what. You show me where I can get a room for the night, and we’ll continue this tomorrow.” She lowered her head, thinking that she didn’t want the night to end so soon. But it was a good sign, she thought. It said a lot about his character. “You’re a real gentleman, aren’t you, Caleb Cain?” “I try to be.” She nodded. “Okay, it’s a deal.” “So who, exactly, is that stranger?” Mel asked, when Maya carried the empties back to the bar. Caleb had gone to the fireplace for his hat and his shirt, and gone out to start up his truck. “Hell, sis, he was just a man. Had a flat, changed it in the rain and came in to get warm.” “Well, shoot, since when do we have body heat on the menu?” “Melusine Brand, you hush up!” Vidalia said. She came out from behind the bar, slipping an arm around Maya’s shoulders. “You okay, hon? You look a bit flushed and flustered.” “Fine. Tired, but fine.” “That young man…he new in town?” She sighed. “Just passing through,” she said. And if her regret was audible, she couldn’t help it. “He’s looking for a room. I said I’d show him the way to the boarding house.” They all looked up at her, silent, eyes wide. “I’ll show him the freaking boarding house,” Mel said, balling up her apron and slamming it down, starting around the bar. Maya grabbed her shoulder, halting her in her tracks. “I’m pushing thirty, Mel. If I want to spend some time with a man, it’s my choice to make.” “But…but—” “She’s right, Melusine.” Vidalia spoke with authority, and Mel calmed down. She didn’t like it. But she backed off. Then Kara popped out of the kitchen and said, “What’s going on? Did someone call a family meeting and forget to tell me?” “Maya met a handsome stranger,” Selene said. She was sitting on a bar stool to the right, playing around with one of those decks of cards she was always messing with. “And now she’s going to show him the way to the boarding house.” Kara’s eyebrows went up. “The one I saw you dancing with, Maya?” she asked. Maya nodded. “Wow. What a hunk.” “Shut up, Kara,” Mel snapped. “He’s your soul mate, Maya.” They all turned at once to see Selene leaning over and staring down at her tarot cards, which she’d laid out in some strange pattern on the gleaming mahogany bar. “Oh, for the love of—” “The cards don’t lie,” Selene said softly. “Those cards come from the devil, Selene, and you oughtn’t be messing with them,” Vidalia put in. Maya rolled her eyes. “I’m going now. You all have given me a headache.” Each and every one of them eyed her speculatively as Maya grabbed her coat off the peg near the door, put it on, hoisted her purse and sent them a final wave. She knew what they were thinking…and she didn’t particularly care. “Be careful, sweetheart,” she heard her mother say just before she stepped out into the rain. “Don’t do anything you’ll be sorry for later on.” Those words echoed in Maya’s mind and sent a little shiver down her spine. She shook it off, ignored it, pretended not to hear her mother’s words over and over again in her head as she tugged her collar up around her, ducked against the rain and ran across the wet parking lot to the battered pickup that waited with its wipers flapping madly and its headlights shining through the rain onto the road sign that said Leaving Big Falls. Come Back Soon! Chapter 3 He got out of the truck to run around to her side, open her door and help her get in. It was no small distance from the pavement to the pickup floor, after all. And she wasn’t long legged. Funny, he hadn’t noticed that before. He usually liked leggy women, taller and thinner than this one. More coiffed. More “done.” Or maybe he only thought that was what he liked because he hadn’t met Maya Brand. He stood there watching her the way a scientist would watch an unknown species. She settled into the seat, flipped back the hood of her dark blue raincoat, thrust her fingers into her hair and shook it. He had no idea what that little, ritual was, but he liked the result. Then he realized she was staring at him. “You’re getting all wet again, standing there in the rain, Caleb.” He was, he realized. His shoulders were damp, and a steady drip was running from the brim of his battered hat. He closed her door and ran around to the driver’s side to get in. Then he put the truck in gear and prepared to pull out of the parking lot, into the wet, shining, deserted road. “Which way are we headed?” “South,” she said. He frowned at her, and she smiled. Damn, what a smile she had. “That way,” she told him, pointing a finger toward his side of the vehicle. He turned the wheel, and they were off. He hated being this noble. But she had been drinking a little bit tonight. And then there was her reaction to the remark that jerk had made about her sexuality. Caleb had been all prepared to take Maya Brand somewhere private and explore that question for himself. But he couldn’t do that to her now. So he’d just stick around in this town for a day longer, see her again when she was clearheaded and he could be sure she was with him because she wanted to be. She told him where to turn off the main road, and he found himself driving over what was little more than a muddy path, barely wide enough for one vehicle. He worried where he would go if another one came along. “Are you sure this is the right way?” he asked her. “Uh-huh. I sure am. Just keep going.” He flicked the wipers down a notch as the rain seemed to ease off, and he kept going. “See that turnoff there?” “You mean that deer trail?” he asked, sounding skeptical. She laughed. It was a deep and throaty sound that made him squirm with awareness. “Trust me,” she said. She had, he mused, an honest face. So he turned. But he didn’t find a boarding house when he drove in through the tall red pines lining the path. What opened out before him was startling enough to make him hit the brake pedal. Then he put the truck in Park, shut it off and just looked. He’d driven right up to the face of a waterfall so big that about all he could see through the windshield was a wall of froth. He didn’t say anything, and after a moment, he realized he was holding his breath. “No one should come to Big Falls without seeing…well, the big falls,” Maya said. As she spoke she was opening her door, sliding out of the pickup truck. Caleb followed suit, stepping out of the truck onto a flat, stony bit of ground that seemed solid enough. Tipping his head back, he looked up to where the falls began, high above. A few yards ahead of him, the ground ended, and when he looked down over the drop he saw a river unwinding below. That river was all that stood between him and the massive waterfall. “This is incredible,” he told her. “I thought you might like it.” She walked away from him, and he turned to see what she was up to. He watched her as she looked around, then she frowned, shaking her head. “What’s wrong?” “Look.” He did, seeing what she was pointing out. A ring of stones, surrounding the charred remains of someone’s campfire. Around that, on the ground, a dozen or more beer cans and soft drink bottles were scattered. She bent and started picking them up. “This is a favorite spot for partying.” She carried an armload of cans to the truck and tossed them into the back. “We can dump them in the bin back in town.” “Sounds like a plan.” He went to pick up the rest of the cans and took them to the truck. Then they both stood there, beside the pickup. He pretended to be looking at the falls, but mostly he was stealing sideways glances at her. He didn’t really know what to do next…what she’d had in mind when she’d steered him way up here. Licking her lips, seeming just as nervous as he was, she said, “The rain’s letting up.” He tipped his face up to the sky, then took off his hat and shook the water off it. “Looks like it’s stopped altogether.” He opened the pickup door, tossed the hat inside, didn’t bother closing the door again. Maya was right, it had stopped raining. The only moisture hitting his face now was the spray from the falls. He watched the clouds skitter away from the tiny sliver of the waning moon above. A few stars managed to shine, too. When he looked down again, it was to see Maya staring at him, her face tipped up to his. Licking his lips, and knowing he shouldn’t, Caleb slid his hands around her waist anyway. “I’m going to kiss you now, Maya Brand,” he said. “It’s about time, Caleb Cain,” she replied, and her palms slid up the front of him to curl around his shoulders. He lowered his head and pressed his mouth to hers, pulled her closer, kissed her. It was good. He’d been wanting to kiss this woman for hours now, and it was every bit as good as he’d imagined it would be. Her lips were soft and willing to do whatever his suggested. So when he nudged them apart, she complied right away. She shivered against him just a little when he touched the soft curve of her upper lip with his tongue, and he felt the breath stutter out of her mouth into his. Encouraged, he delved deeper, tasted her fully. She tasted like beer. And that was a reminder to him that none of this was a very good idea. But then her hips arched against him, and he groaned and kept kissing her. His hands slid down to cup her backside, and when he squeezed her closer, she wriggled against him in a way that almost made him roar as loudly as the falls were doing. He lifted his head and stared down into her glittering, heavy-lidded eyes. “If you want to stop, Maya, now would be the time to tell me.” She shook her head once from side to side and shucked off her jacket, letting it fall to the rain-wet ground. “You…you’ve had a few beers.” “Not that many.” Her hands came to his chest, her fingers flicking the snaps of the denim shirt open and pushing it down over his shoulders. “You were upset by what that redneck said in the saloon.” “Was I?” Her hands went to her own blouse now. It was white, button-down, clean. She undid the buttons one by one, opening the blouse. She wore a white cotton bra…which she filled to overflowing. “It’s…it’s cold and d-damp out here.” The blouse came off. She tossed it to the ground with the coat. The bra came next. “You’re right, it is.” “Oh, hell.” His hands covered her breasts before he could give them permission. Weighty and full, nipples taut with the bite of the chilly air. He ran his thumbs over them and watched her catch her lower lip between her teeth and close her eyes. “You’re an adult woman,” he said. “Who the hell am I to tell you what’s good for you?” Her hands again, tugging his T-shirt over his head, and he didn’t want to let her breasts go long enough to take it off, but he did, and when he touched them again he used his mouth. The hell with nobility. She’d only had three beers. He’d counted several times in his head since they left that bar. Three beers. She was not incapacitated. And she was not young or innocent or naive. And he was only human. Warm flesh and stiff nipples on his tongue made him hungry for more, and when her fingers tangled in his hair to hold him to her, he suckled her harder, nipped with his teeth, tugged and pulled at her nipple until she made whimpering sounds and fell back against the side of the pickup. Her nails dug into his back. He attacked her other breast, pressing her back to the cold metal of the truck as his hands tugged at her jeans, found the button, found the zipper, shoved them down, baring her from waist to ankles in one hurried motion. She kicked the jeans off, tearing free of her boots at the same time. He looked her over and shivered. Then he closed his hands at her waist and lifted her, set her bare bottom on the seat of the pickup, shoved her legs apart and bent to bury his face in between. He tasted her. Salt and woman coated his tongue, and he delved deeper, spread her wider, tasted every part of her, until she was quivering and moaning and tugging at his hair and shaking. So close to ecstasy. But he didn’t take her there…not yet. He fumbled with his jeans, freed himself, and again clasped her waist and lifted her, pulling her forward this time, and down. Wrapping her legs around his waist and settling her over him, he managed not to move for one brief moment. Jaw clenched, he whispered, “You sure, Maya?” Her answer was a pleading sound from deep in her throat as she rocked her hips. So he pulled her lower, sheathed himself slowly inside her heat. And it was so good his knees nearly buckled. And when she moved lower and cried out, his knees did buckle, and he lowered them both to the ground, because he couldn’t do otherwise. Her coat was his bed as he fell backward, pulling her with him. They moved together, and he forgot to think, to perform, to do anything, as they rolled and clung and twined around each other. Until at last he lost himself to his climax as she trembled and murmured his name and then screamed it out loud. Breathless and weak, he enfolded her in his arms, and they lay there on the damp ground for a few moments, sated. But then their body heat cooled, and she shivered in his arms. “Let’s get you out of the cold,” he told her. She didn’t reply. He pulled back so he could look at her face. Closed eyes, relaxed features, maybe a hint of a smile. And another shiver. “Sound asleep,” he muttered. “Guess that says a lot about my technique, doesn’t it?” He got to his feet, and began to put her clothes back on her. Her pretty white blouse was stained with mud here and there, but he pulled it over her arms as she hung like a ragdoll in his. Then he buttoned it up with no small amount of regret. Her coat was going to be a real mess, once they got off it and picked it up off the wet ground. But before he could do that, he had to replace her panties, which were easy, and her jeans, which were not. She stirred when he wrestled her into the jeans, opened her eyes and smiled crookedly at him. And it occurred to him for one, panicked moment that maybe she’d had more than three beers tonight after all. Maybe she’d been drinking before he’d ever arrived on the scene. A rush of guilt swamped him, and he closed his eyes. Please, Fate, he thought, don’t let me have taken advantage of a woman too inebriated to consent. He was a lawyer before he’d ever been a politician. That was the way it was done in the Montgomery family. And he knew damned good and well what a rape charge would do to his political career. “Caleb,” she muttered. He looked at her, at the pure honest goodness of her. “I’m an idiot. You’re not the vindictive type, are you, Maya?” He asked the question as he put on his own clothes. “Hmm?” He cupped her chin. “Tell me you wanted this.” She smiled. Then she hiccuped. Caleb closed his eyes tightly and felt a bit ill. “Oh my God,” he whispered. “How much have you had to drink tonight, Maya?” She shrugged. “I don’t drink,” she said. “Not ever?” He blinked in surprise. She shook her head. “It wouldn’t look good…you know, to the church ladies.” “Church ladies, huh?” He wrapped his arms around her and helped her get to her feet. She leaned against him as he picked up her coat, but it was soaked almost clear through. So he put the denim shirt he’d been wearing around her shoulders, and walked her toward the passenger side of the truck. “Caleb?” He looked down at her. “What, hon?” “Is sex always…so…so…you know? Good?” Caleb stopped walking. “Well…no. Not always. At least, it hasn’t been for me. How about you?” Her grin was shy and beautiful as she lowered her head. “I wouldn’t know,” she said very softly. She might as well have picked him up over her head and tossed him into that river. “What do you mean, you wouldn’t know?” She reached for the door handle. “Maya? Are you telling me that this was…that you were a…a…?” “Virgin.” She said it flatly. “Oh, hell.” She shrugged. “Tomorrow’s my birthday,” she said. And she smiled a smug little satisfied smile as if that was supposed to mean something quite profound. Then she stepped up into the pickup, only she missed the step and almost fell face first—would have, if he hadn’t caught her. What the hell had he done here? He could see the headlines now. Senatorial Candidate’s Night On The Town: Montgomery Deflowers Virginal Good Girl After Getting Her Too Drunk To Say No! “Oh, hell,” he said again. He helped her into the truck. Closed the door. Then he went around to the other side and got in himself. He started the engine, then sat there a minute resting his head on the steering wheel. “Are you all right, Caleb?” she asked him. He glanced sideways at her. Wide eyes just as blue as the sky on a clear summer day. That sprinkling of freckles. The look of pure relaxed contentment. She was not a political disaster waiting to happen. She was an angel who’d given him a night he would never forget. Smiling crookedly, he reached out, cupped her face with his hand, and said, “Probably you’d do well not to tell anyone about this.” She smiled back at him. “I might be tempted to. I mean, just to prove that the current theory is wrong.” He knew what she meant. What that redneck at the saloon had said, that she was either frigid or gay. The jerk didn’t have a clue. Maya Brand was made for loving. “I won’t tell, though,” she said. “Caleb…tonight was about proving something to myself, not so much to the rest of this town.” She shrugged. “Besides, I really think I’m starting to make some inroads with the church ladies. No sense blowing it now.” He nodded. “No regrets, Maya?” She shook her head, then tilted it to one side. “Not a one. You?” “Not a one.” “You’re a good man, Caleb Cain,” she told him softly. “I can tell.” “You really think so?” “Uh-huh.” He backed the truck around, drove down the path from the falls, and turned onto the road to head back the way they’d come. “Whoever is trying to tell you what to do with your life…don’t you let them. I get the feeling a man like you won’t be happy unless you’re doing what you want to do…not what someone else thinks you should.” “What did you do, Maya? Catch your sister’s ESP?” She shrugged. “Maybe I did. Turn right down here.” He did, driving in silence along Main Street. It was charming, small. Rockwellesque, with an Oklahoma twist. “That building there on the left—that’s Ida-May’s boarding house. Our place is another five miles along this road. Think you can find your way back alone?” “I think so.” “Good.” He kept driving. She was silent, but he got the feeling she wanted to ask him something. Finally he pulled into the driveway of the old-fashioned farmhouse, white with red shutters. Every light inside blazing. A small red barn stood off to the left. Maya turned to him and said, “You are staying the night at the boarding house, aren’t you, Caleb?” He smiled at her. “Of course I am. I want to see you again, lady.” She brightened. Then he pulled her close and kissed her, long and slow. And even while a little voice told him this was not possible, his heart kept whispering that it was. That it had to be. When he lifted his head she flung open her door, jumped out and ran all the way to the house, not even giving him a chance to walk her to the front door. She waved once, then went inside. Caleb turned the truck around and drove away. It was late. He was feeling guilty. Decidedly guilty. Running away from his life was a selfish thing to do. Not that he regretted it. But maybe it was time for him to do what Maya had suggested. Figure out what he wanted his life to be, instead of continuing to live by the expectations of other people. Maybe it was time he made his own decisions. He flipped open the glove compartment and pulled out his cell phone. He’d had it turned off, until now. But he supposed the right thing to do would be to call his father, tell him that he was having some doubts about his future, and that he would be back just as soon as he decided what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Maybe he didn’t want to tie himself to the city. To a senate seat. To a political alliance instead of a marriage. He hit the power button on the phone. Glanced down at the lighted number pad. Before he could punch the first number, the phone bleated in his hand, startling him so much that he damn near dropped it. Frowning, he brought it to his ear. “Hello?” “Caleb! Thank God we’ve finally reached you!” His heart iced over at the tone of the voice even before he recognized it as that of Bobby McAllister, his longtime friend and adviser, even before Bobby said the last words Caleb had expected to hear. “You’re father’s had a stroke, Caleb. We need you to get home right away.” For a moment he couldn’t speak. He was too stunned to speak as the information registered. And when it did, his first instinct was to deny it. To accuse Bobby of lying, but of course he knew better. “My God,” he finally managed. “Is he—” “We don’t know anything yet. He’s in the hospital. It’s…it’s serious, Caleb. Please, get home.” “I’m on my way,” he said. He tossed the phone down and pressed the accelerator to the floor. Chapter 4 Maya walked into the familiar comfort of the farmhouse with a crooked smile on her face. She sailed past her mother and her sisters, ignored all their questions and demands, and floated up the stairs to her bedroom. She was asleep almost before her hair dampened the pillows. Twelve hours later, she gradually came to. It was a dull, foggy sort of awakening, and it came with a pounding head and a queasiness in her stomach that grew worse by several degrees when she tried to move. “Damn,” she moaned. “Why am I so…?” And then memory came. And she sat up fast, despite the rush of dizziness. “Oh my God, what have I done?” “That’s the best question I’ve heard in a while.” Maya turned toward the sound of her mother’s voice. Vidalia had been sitting in a chair by the window, but she rose now. Her waist-long ebony curls were pulled around to one side in a ponytail that trailed down over her shoulder. She wore jeans that showed off a figure no mother of five grown daughters ought to still have, and a denim blouse with flowers embroidered at the shoulders. “Oh, Mom.” Maya put her hand to her head and fell back on the pillows limply. “You wanna tell me about it?” Tears burned at the backs of her eyes, so she kept them squeezed tight. “I don’t know what got into me.” She heard soft steps as her mother crossed the room, felt the shift of the mattress as Vidalia sat down on its edge. A comforting whiff of her mother’s violets-and-vanilla body wash reached her senses. As fresh as all outdoors. “Come on, sit up. Sip this.” Her voice was soothing, and her cool hand stroked the hair away from Maya’s face. “I had a feelin’ you’d be sick this morning. As little as you touch the stuff, even a few beers can make you sick.” Maya forced her eyes open and saw that her mother’s other hand held a glass of what looked like tomato juice and smelled like the spice aisle at Gayle’s Grocery. She grimaced, but she sipped. And when the tiniest relief seemed to coat her stomach, she sipped some more. “Now I want you to stop beatin’ yourself up over whatever happened last night,” Vidalia said. “You wouldn’t say that if you knew what happened last night.” Her mother smiled. “Well, now, let me take a stab at it, hmm? You got the birthday blues. Lord knows, child, I’ve had ‘em, too. They hit you any time you turn an age that ends in nine. Except for nineteen, of course, which doesn’t count.” Maya frowned and lifted her head. “Drink,” her mother said. So she drank. And Vidalia went on. “People tend to think these crisis points hit us at the round numbers. Thirty, forty, fifty. But they don’t. It’s the dang nines. By the time you turn thirty, you’ll have had a year to get used to the idea of turning thirty. But twenty-nine—well now, that’s a shocker. All of a sudden you’re looking at thirty seriously for the first time.” Draining the glass, Maya set it aside. “Better?” Vidalia asked. “Stomach is. Head still aches though.” “Give it time to work. Old family remedies never fail. Now, where was I?” “Trying to make me feel like I haven’t done something horrible.” “Oh, right.” Again, Vidalia smiled. “So you had a couple of drinks last night And a handsome cowboy came along, and you had a good time with him. It’s not the end of the world, you know.” Swallowing hard, lowering her gaze, Maya said, “I took him up to the falls, Mom. I…we….” She bit her lip. “God, what was I thinking?” Stroking her hair, which was her specialty, Vidalia said, “You had sex with him?” Maya nodded, feeling as guilty as a schoolgirl caught cheating on a final exam. “Hon, you’re twenty-nine years old. And sex is a celebration of life. It’s acknowledging that you’re not just a good, decent upstanding, respectable person, but a woman. A real live red-blooded, glorious woman. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, all right, technically, it’s a broken commandment, and the Reverend Jackson would probably disagree with me. But God forgives, daughter. And He expects us to slip up now and then.” Maya looked up, sniffling. “You really think so?” “Of course I do. Making mistakes and learning from them is part the whole point of the human experience. So long as you used protection, there’s not a thing in the world all that terrible about a grown woman….” She let her voice trail off, probably because Maya’s eyes had flown suddenly wider and her hand had clapped to her mouth. “Maya? Honey? You…you did use protection. Didn’t you?” Her mother pulled Maya’s hand from her mouth. “Didn’t you ?’’ she repeated. “I…I don’t…know. I mean, it was dark, and I was….” “You were what?” Maya swallowed hard. “I was…drunk.” Vidalia blinked. “How drunk?” When Maya didn’t answer, she slammed her hands to her thighs. “Maya, I’d have never let you leave with him if I thought you’d had more than a beer or two!” “I just…wasn’t thinking last night. God, Mom, I don’t know if he used protection or not!” Closing her eyes slowly, her mother sighed. “I think that’s something you might want to find out, child.” Nodding hard, Maya got out of bed and looked down to see that she was still wearing the same clothes she’d had on last night. Her white blouse had mud stains here and there, and her jeans were wrinkled. But there was a new addition to her ensemble. Caleb’s denim shirt. “I’ll shower, and then I’ll go talk to him. He’s staying over at the boarding house.” Then she paused, and a smile tugged at her lips. “He said he wanted to see me again.” Her mother bit her lip, saying nothing. “I really like this man, Mom. I mean…he’s not what I thought I wanted…not well-off or respectable or any of that…but there’s something about him.” Sighing softly, Vidalia managed a smile that looked shaky. “Well now, that’s nice, hon. That’s real nice. You go shower now. Go on.” Nodding, Maya hurried into the bathroom. She used the hair dryer, so her brown hair was bouncier and seemed thicker than usual. She wore a pastel blue dress with an A-line skirt and a tab collar. And she even added a hint of makeup, something she so seldom did that she had to borrow it from Selene’s room. She looked in the mirror and nodded in approval. She looked perfect. Respectable. Good. Even pretty. If she had time, she thought, she would bake some cookies or something, to show off how good she was at that. Cooking was something she loved and was very good at. But that would have to wait. Surely Caleb would be staying on for a little while. Even though she’d been drinking last night, she’d still felt something—something extraordinary—between them. He had to have felt it, too. He had to. She took the beat-up family station wagon and drove into town, taking her time, humming along with the country song on the radio. Then she pulled into the tiny lot at the boarding house. And the first whisper of doubt crept along her spine when she didn’t see his rusty pickup parked there. Still, she got out and went through the front door to the big screened in front porch, and across that to the inner door, where she rang the bell. Ida-May Peabody answered in a moment, greeting her with raised eyebrows. “Why, Maya Brand. Aren’t you looking nice today! Whatever brings you here first thing in the morning?” “A guest of yours…left something at the saloon last night,” Maya said, holding up the shirt “I’ve come by to return it.” Mrs. Peabody blinked. “But hon, I’ve only got two folks staying here. Maddy Sumner’s cousin, Lois, who’s here for the wedding, and Ol’ Hank.” She shook her head. “This man would have just checked in late last night,” she said. “Caleb Cain?” The woman shook her head. Fighting a rising sense of unease, Maya rushed on. “He’s about so tall, dark hair, blue eyes, early thirties or so….” But Mrs. Peabody just kept on shaking her head from side to side, very slowly. “Are you sure?” she asked, almost brokenly. “Sorry, Maya. No one like that has been near the place.” Closing her eyes slowly, drawing a deep breath, Maya said, “Thanks, anyway, Mrs. Peabody. I must have misunderstood him. Sorry to have bothered you.” “No trouble, dear.” Mrs. Peabody closed the door and left Maya standing there, holding the stranger’s shirt and feeling a little bit used. A little bit betrayed. And a whole lot disappointed. “I have no one to blame but myself,” she muttered, drumming up the will to turn and walk back to her car. She got in, tossed the shirt into the passenger side and told herself she shouldn’t be crushed over this. She should chalk it up to experience, hope to God there would be no life-threatening or life-altering repercussions, and move on. She should. So why did she have the feeling that wasn’t going to be as easy as it ought to be? Three weeks later, her mother dragged her to an appointment with Dr. Sheila Stone, an ob-gyn in the nearby town of Tucker Lake. And while she knew these things were necessary, Maya hated every second of it all the same. Still, the doctor—a stern, handsome redhead with close-cropped hair and wire-rim glasses—took blood and urine samples, and subjected Maya to a thorough exam and a handful of advice. “I assume you realize the chance you took by having casual sex with a man you didn’t know,” Dr. Stone said. “I’m not here to lecture you on morality or even stupidity, Maya. But for the love of God, use a condom next time.” “I told you, I was drinking. This is totally out of character for me, and it won’t happen again.” Her face softening, Dr. Stone nodded. “We all do dumb things sometimes, I suppose. Are you worried?” “Shouldn’t I be? Wouldn’t you be, Dr. Stone?” “Yes, I guess I would. And my patients call me Dr. Sheila.” “I don’t plan to be one of your patients,” Maya said. “This is a one-time visit.” Removing her gloves, Dr. Sheila went to the sink to wash her hands. “Actually, Maya, the truth is you’re going to have to come back a few more times.” Maya blinked. “I am?” “I’m afraid so.” She tugged paper towels, wiped her hands dry. “Certain venereal diseases or pregnancy should show up right away, of course. But for HIV… well, you’re going to have be tested again in six weeks, and after that in six months, and after that—” Maya held up a hand. “This is insane.” “That’s what I try to tell people. It is insane—especially when a ninety-nine-cent item in a foil wrapper would prevent all the worry. Well, most of it, anyway.” Sighing, Maya said, “What if I can find the man?” The doctor shrugged. “Well, if he’s willing to be tested, and if his test came back clean, and if he was the only person you’d had sexual contact with—then we could rest assured you hadn’t contracted the virus.” Maya drew a deep breath, held it a long moment, and sighed. “Then I suppose I should swallow my pride and contact him.” “I suppose you should.” Turning, she walked to the counter and glanced down at the urine sample to which she’d added chemicals. She was very still for a moment. “Dr. Sheila?” Maya asked, sliding off the table to pull on her jeans and button them. “What is it? Is something wrong?” Turning, the woman looked at her. “We’re going to need to confirm this with the blood work, Maya…but, um…according to this…you’re pregnant.” Maya stopped moving. She was standing there with a paper gown on top and a pair of jeans on the bottom, in her sock feet, and this woman was saying something in a foreign language. It made no sense. It did not translate. It was not comprehensible. Dr. Sheila came forward and gripped Maya’s arms. Gently she led her to a chair and eased her into it. “Are you okay?” Blinking against the shock, Maya tried to talk, but all that came out was a whisper, and it wasn’t what she’d planned to say at all. “I want my mother,” she rasped. “I’ll get her.” Caleb spent several tense days at his father’s bedside, racked with guilt over having been out of town when his dad needed him most. But he was back home now. And if this episode had taught him anything, it was that you couldn’t run away from your duty. Your heritage. Your responsibilities. He was expected to play a certain role in life, and he damn well would. Running away in search of something simpler, something better, had only brought on disaster. And the pipe dreams he’d been indulging in that night? About settling down, about setting up a law office in a little one-horse town. About living there in a farmhouse with vines up one side, and a big dog, and maybe a duck pond in back. About marrying a daisy-fresh wife who had freckles on the bridge of her nose and looked great in blue jeans. They were just that—pipe dreams. It was just as well this had happened when it had, if it had to happen at all. Before he did something foolish. Before he forgot who he was. Still, every now and then he would find himself staring out at a rainy night sky and remembering…thinking again about that incredible woman he’d met and the night they’d spent together. Maya Brand. Even her name was one of a kind. Had she been disappointed to find him gone the next morning? Or just angry? He wondered if he’d hurt her, and hoped he hadn’t. A little voice told him he knew damn well he’d hurt her. It had been her first time. Women took things like that to heart. Still, she would be fine, a woman like that. Smart, capable. Surrounded by family. She would be just fine. And sooner or later she would find a man far better for her than he was. Far better. It was good he’d had to come home, before things got too complicated between them. As it turned out, it had been just a brief interlude. One night of…. What? That was what bugged him. Try as he might, he couldn’t quite think of that time with Maya as a one-night stand or a meaningless sexual encounter between two consenting adults. He couldn’t. Maybe someday he would go back there and…. But no. No. It wasn’t meant to be. He had to be here, taking care of his father’s interests. Setting his own future into motion. She had to be there, in that little town, with her sisters and her mom. He would probably forget her soon. She would forget him, too. It was for the best. Damn, why did that sound like such a lie? Maya spent the next five weeks just trying to absorb the unavoidable facts. First, that she was pregnant, unmarried and destined to become the most scandalous member of her notorious family. All she’d worked for—the image she’d tried so hard to cultivate as the respectable one, the responsible one, the sane one—all of that was gone—or would be the second word got around town about her condition. The second fact staring her in the face became cruelly obvious when Mel insisted on trying to locate Caleb Cain of Tulsa to tell him that he was going to be a father. There was no such person. He’d lied to her. So there it was. And she wallowed in it for those first five weeks, and even for a while after that. She stopped going out, stopped helping at the saloon. She stopped dressing, for the most part. Spent her days in sweats or her nightgown. In the mornings she was too ill to feel like dressing, and in the afternoon, she figured, why bother? She did all her usual domestic tasks, which gave her some comfort. Baking cookies and bread. Eating cookies and bread. Sewing and quilting and knitting. But, for the most part, she moped. Until one bright, sunny morning on the first day of June, when Vidalia marched through Maya’s bedroom door, flicked on the bright overhead light and said, “Time’s up, daughter. Now get out of that rocking chair, get a smile on that face and put some clothes on.” Looking up, her knitting in her hand, Maya blinked in the light. She liked it dim. Dark. It was easier to dwell on her ruined life that way. “Leave me alone, Mom.” “I will not leave you alone.” Vidalia went to the closet, flipped hangers until she found a sunny yellow dress, then tossed it onto the bed. “I’ve left you alone for long enough already. Thought I’d give you time to absorb this. And I have. But like I said, time’s up.” She walked to the rocking chair, took the knitting from Maya’s hands and placed it in the basket on the floor. “No more feeling sorry for yourself, girl.” “What would you suggest I do instead?” “Get up on your feet and act like the daughter I raised instead of some watercolor wimp. You’re a Brand, Maya. And you’ve been given a gift more precious than any other you’ll ever know. A child. You should be down on your knees giving thanks, not pouting as if you’ve been cursed. You want my granddaughter to think she’s unwanted? Hmm?” “How do you know it’s a girl?” Maya asked. Her mother drew her brows together tight and tipped her head to one side, giving Maya the look that said she’d asked a foolish question. Then she gripped Maya’s arms and drew her to her feet. “Come on. Into the shower. If I can handle five of you all by myself, you can certainly deal with one when you’ve got all of us to help you.” “I know that.” “Then act like it. You don’t need any man to get through life, daughter. If anyone knows that, it’s me, and if anyone ought to know it, it’s any daughter of mine. You’re all you need. You.” She poked Maya’s chest. “And her,” she said, laying a gentle hand on Maya’s belly. “That’s all. Your sisters and I are an added bonus. Now march in there and shower, then dress and get your tail down to the saloon. Wound-lickin’ time is over.” Her mother was right, Maya realized. She had been wallowing in a nice thick mire of self-pity. She’d been lied to, used and left behind. She was pregnant and alone and scared to death, and everything she’d ever wanted out of life suddenly seemed impossible. But it wasn’t. Not really. She could bounce back from this. Somehow. After all, her mom had, and in a time when things had been much harder on single mothers than they were today. She pressed her palms to her belly. There was the baby to think about now. What kind of a mother would she be? Depressed, moody, sullen all the time? Or alive and loving and happy? Sighing, she looked down. “Your grandma’s right, little one. Mamma’s all through sulking now. Promise.” Vidalia nodded in approval. “Good girl.” She left Maya to get her act together. So Maya showered, and she dressed. She was glad her mother had chosen the sunny yellow dress, rather than something snug fitting, because she felt as if her belly was already beginning to swell just a bit. Her mother insisted that was all in her imagination, but she felt it all the same. There was a tap at the door, and Maya turned, yellow dress in place, hair still bundled in a towel. Selene stepped in, grabbed her hand and pulled her into the hall. “You’ve gotta see this!” she said. “Slow down. Selene! What’s going on?” But Selene ran, tugging Maya behind her, down the hall, into her own room. Then she stopped and pointed at the little table in the corner. It was covered in odd items, that table. Shells, rocks, candles. And, right now, those tarot cards Selene was always playing with. Two of them lay face up on the table. Maya eyed the cards, because Selene seemed so excited about something, but they made little sense to her. One looked like a clown juggling, and the other was a nude woman with some sort of baton in each hand. “So?” Maya asked, looking at Selene. “Maya! You’re having twins!” Maya tried not to laugh, she really did. But it escaped her anyway, in a big gust, when she couldn’t hold it in any longer. She held her belly, and snorted and roared so hard her sides hurt. So hard her eyes watered. If felt good to laugh. Thank God she had an insane kid sister to keep her amused. “This isn’t funny!” Selene said. “I’m telling you, it’s twins, Maya. Look at the cards!” Maya glanced at them again, still trembling with laughter, but neither card had any babies on it, much less two of them. She got her laughter under control, gave her sister a gentle hug and said, “I love you, you flaky little weirdo. Twins.” And, laughing some more, she went back to her own room; then, grabbing her shoes, she headed downstairs. It was good to have a family, even an oddball crew like this—or especially an oddball crew like this. She’d needed a good laugh to snap her out of her well of misery. It was time to take charge of her life again. She needed things. Baby furniture and clothes, a bigger vehicle, just for starters. She needed to get a nursery ready in this old house. There was so much to be done. So many plans to make. For the first time she began to allow herself to get a little bit excited about the notion of being a mother. And the image her mother had painted for her, of another little girl in the family, warmed her inside. She missed having little girls running around this old house. She’d been a second mom to her sisters, being the oldest of them. And now maybe she would have a little girl of her own. One thing was for sure, this baby would be the most spoiled child in seven counties if Maya’s sisters and mother had anything to say about things. The most protected, too. And the most loved. She smiled, shaking her head yet again at Selene and her silly notions. But between the two of them, Vidalia and Selene had managed to snap her out of her state of melancholia. There was so much to be done! She’d wasted far too much time already. Chapter 5 Eight and a half months later… Sighing, Maya walked, belly first, to the kitchen window, parted the red-checked curtains and stared out at the snowdrifts and blinding white sky. It was crispy cold outside. In here it was warm and fragrant. She had molasses cookies baking in the oven, a nice stew in the slow cooker. No husband to cook for—not that she needed one. No children. Yet. She really was going to be a fantastic mother, she thought, pressing her palms to her expanded belly. And as long as she lived, she would never, ever do anything to embarrass her children. Not ever. And eventually she would prove to this town that a woman could be a single mother and an upstanding citizen. They would accept her into that exclusive club of the respectable and socially acceptable. They would. The back door opened, admitting a rush of frigid wind and bundled bodies. Vidalia stomped the snow off her boots, and whipped off her red-and-white striped scarf and matching hat, an act that set the mass of jet black curls free. She was far too old, Maya thought, to keep her hair so long. Much less dress the way she did. Then again, her mother wasn’t old. Not even fifty yet. Vidalia’s coat came off, revealing skintight designer jeans and a black spandex top. She kept herself in great shape for a woman her age. She had every right to be proud of her looks. If only she wasn’t so determined to be loyal to the memory of her long-dead husband, she might even find love again. God knew the lying, cheating, jerk didn’t deserve her loyalty. And if she said that out loud, her mother would probably smack her. “Mmm, molasses cookies, Maya?” Vidalia asked, sniffing the air. “They smell better than a strong man on a hot day.” “Mother.” Vidalia shrugged and sent her a wink, her black eyes sparkling. “Still miserable, I see. Just checking.” “I’m not miserable. I’m tired, and my back is killing me, and I keep getting horrible leg cramps that make me want to claw the flowers off the wallpaper, but I am not the least bit miserable.” Maya went to the oven, opened it and bent to check the cookies, but couldn’t bend very far. Sighing, she gave up and reached for a pot holder. “Let me get them,” Kara said, hurrying off with her coat and coming forward. Towering over them all, except for Edie, of course, she snatched the pot holders from Maya in spite of Maya’s protests. Kara was too tall for her own good, and her feet were too big, and she was always tripping over them. Kara the Klutz was the nickname bandied around town, but never in front of her sisters—at least, not since the time Mel had overheard it and left the unfortunate speaker with a bloody nose and a split lip. “Really, Kara, I can manage,” Maya said. “You should be sitting down with your feet up,” her sister argued. “Kara’s right, hon.” Vidalia took Maya’s arm and urged her toward a chair. And Maya could only look grimly back at the damp coats hanging on the peg near the door, snowy boots dripping all over the mat underneath them, and then at Kara and whatever mess would come next. With a sigh of resignation, she sat down as her mother instructed, even as Kara got the tray of cookies out, burned her finger, tripped over her foot and sent cookies flying everywhere. Vidalia pressed her lips together to keep from saying a word, as poor Kara stared helplessly at the cookies falling to the floor. Then she tossed the cookie sheet toward the sink, turned and ran out of the room. Maya heard her feet pounding up the stairs. She looked at the mess, then at her mother. “What’s wrong with her? She usually laughs it off when she does stuff like that.” “Kara had a bad day, hon. Or…her latest beau did anyway.” She clicked her tongue. “Poor Billy.” “Oh, no.” Maya closed her eyes. “What happened to this one?” “Bus hit him when he was crossing the street.” Vidalia bent to begin picking up the fallen cookies. Her jeans were so tight Maya was amazed the woman could bend at all, but that was her mother. She was nothing if not flexible. “Billy was blaming it on the snowy roads until one of those damned nurses over at General started telling him about Peter and Mike. By the time Kara got to the hospital to see him, he was showing distinct signs of cooling toward her.” Maya started to get up, but her mother held up a hand to stop her, so she settled back in the chair. “So you think he’s going to dump her?” “He dumped her before they even finished his CT scan.” Maya’s lips thinned. “Coward.” “Darn straight.” “How bad did he get hurt?” Maya asked. Vidalia shrugged. “No worse than he deserved. And not nearly as bad as Peter or Mike did. Couple of busted ribs and a few stitches where his head hit the pavement. But it’s Kara I’m worried about.” Dumping the cookies into the wastebasket she brushed off her hands, set the cookie sheet down and turned off the oven. Then, turning, she leaned back against the counter, folded her arms over her chest. “But she’ll be all right. She’s a Brand, and my daughter. Now, how about you, Maya? Any twinges today? Any signs?” She might be notorious and outrageous and tactless, but Vidalia Brand loved her daughters, Maya thought smiling inwardly. “Not a one,” she said. “These babies seem determined to stay right where they are.” “Well, hon, you’re gonna have to stop letting them hear the weather reports out here! I don’t blame them for wanting to stay put!” As she spoke, Vidalia came away from the counter. She pulled a chair into position, then lifted Maya’s feet onto it. “And speakin’ of babies, where’s mine?” “Selene is upstairs in her bedroom doing… whatever it is she does up there. I smelled some god-awful incense burning, and she was playing that drum of hers, so I didn’t bother her. But tell her when she comes down that those cookies are completely vegan-friendly.” Her mother looked at the wastebasket and cocked her brows. “Not those cookies, Mom. The ones in the cookie jar. I’ve been baking all afternoon.” “Oh.” Then her mother looked at her. “Why?” Maya shrugged. “Resting all the time makes me tired.” Vidalia grinned. “You sure do look tired now.” “I am. I’m bushed.” “Well, you go on now and have a nap. I’ll get dinner, and Mel will be along any time now to help me. Go on. You know I won’t take no for an answer.” “I wasn’t going to give you no for an answer.” Maya put her feet down and got out of the chair, belly leading the way. One hand immediately went to the small of her back, but she took it away to give her notorious mother a hug. “Thanks, Mom. And as for dinner, it’s already made. In the slow cooker.” Her mother released her and hurried to the pot to remove the lid and sniff the steam. “Girl, you ought to be cooking in Paree.” “Yeah. I hear they love stew and biscuits in Paris, Mom.” She sent her mother a wink and a smile, then headed through the large living room and on up the stairs. In the hallway she passed her youngest sister’s room and smelled the familiar herbal scents coming from beyond the door. The door itself had Selene’s idea of a Do Not Disturb sign hanging from it. It read Out Of Body, Back In Five Minutes. She walked slowly down the hall, past the next door, which bore a sign that used to be funny but today seemed to sting: “Enter at your own risk.” Maya heard Kara’s voice coming from inside her room. She was speaking to someone, probably on the telephone, so she didn’t bother her, either. She secretly hoped the injured Billy had changed his mind about breaking things off. Shaking her head slowly, Maya finished the trek to her own bedroom and went inside. It was actually a two-room suite, the largest in the house. It was the master bedroom and had been her mother’s, but Vidalia had insisted Maya take it so there would be room for the babies. Already, there were two cribs flanking her own bed. They were in the process of finishing up the adjoining room, which would serve as a nursery. Wallpaper with baby ducks and chicks already lined the walls, but the linoleum floor wasn’t quite finished. Carpeting, in a baby’s room, Vidalia had decreed, would have been about as practical as whitewash in a chicken coop. Tiles could be washed daily if needed—and it would be, she promised. So Maya had reluctantly agreed. Maya ran a hand over the smooth rail of one of the old cribs. Both of them had been in storage in the attic. Vidalia’s five girls had been born little more than a year apart, one from the other, so she’d needed more than one crib at a time. And she’d kept everything. Growing up, Maya’s mother had been very poor. The daughter of migrant workers from Mexico, she’d been named for the crop they were harvesting on the day she was born. And it was a name that suited her, because she had the thick, tough skin and sharp bite of an onion when she needed it, softened by the sweetness that only the vidalia strain possessed. Damn good thing, too. It hadn’t been easy, raising five daughters alone. It was not a path Maya had ever thought she would follow. But as it turned out…. Hell. She’d never meant for it to turn out like this. Sighing, she lay down on her bed, pulled a cozy fleece blanket around her and rested her head on the pillows. Maya opened her eyes when something tickled her face some time later. A stuffed bunny with yarn eyes stared at her. She looked past it and saw dark, impish Mel, curled up on the other side of the bed, also staring at her. “You okay?” she asked. “Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Maya sat up in the bed, picked up the pink terry cloth bunny and squeezed it. It was so soft you couldn’t help but squeeze it. Mel sat up, too, her short, black hair not even messed from the pillows. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you’re eight and a half months pregnant with twins.” She reached behind her, and pulled out another terry bunny, this one blue. “I picked these up in town today. Couldn’t resist.” Maya smiled. She couldn’t help but smile. She’d told Dr. Sheila she didn’t want to know the genders of her babies, but her youngest sister had made her own decree. “I should assume you’re backing Selene’s prediction that the newest Brands are a girl and a boy?” Mel shrugged. “Have you ever known Selene to be wrong about anything?” Thinking of that long ago night, when her spooky kid sister had told her that Caleb was her soul mate, Maya said, “Yes, actually. I have.” “Well, not often enough so you’d notice it,” Mel said. She frowned down at her sister. “This isn’t working out the way you had it planned, is it, Maya?” She only shrugged. “Hell, if I ever see that no-account phony cowboy again, I’ll break his arms off and use ‘em to cave his head in.” “Don’t worry, sis. You aren’t very likely to see him again.” Mel averted her eyes. And Maya knew—she just knew—that Mel had learned something. “What is it?’’ “Nothing.” Sitting up, Maya held her sister’s gaze. “Don’t you know better than to test the patience of a woman as pregnant as I am?’’ Licking her lips, Mel finally looked down, and sighed. “You have a right to know. I just…didn’t want to have to be the one to tell you.” “To tell me what?” Mel got up off the bed and reached into her sweater pocket, pulling out a folded-up newspaper. She opened it, turned it and laid it on the bed facing Maya. Maya looked, and the babies kicked her so hard she gasped. A grainy black-and-white photo of Caleb Cain stared back at her from the page. And the caption read Will He, Or Won’t He? Blinking back tears of surprise at seeing that face again…at seeing it on the body of a man dressed in an expensive designer suit and tie, with his hair all slicked back, and no battered hat in sight, Maya read the words underneath out loud. ‘“Cain Caleb Montgomery III, former mayor of Springville, is still refusing to say whether or not he plans to enter the race for the U.S. Senate, though political insiders say it’s only a matter of time before Montgomery makes the formal announcement declaring his candidacy. If that’s true, he’ll be following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him. There is no doubt, that should he enter the race, campaign finances will be the least of his worries. Montgomery is ranked the third richest man in the United States. But just where does he stand on the issues?’’’ Mel took the newspaper out of Maya’s hands. “Come on, Maya. Do you really care where he stands on the issues?” Maya closed her eyes. “I can’t believe this. He let me think he was a penniless drifter.” “Well, of course he did. He didn’t want you coming back to haunt him later. Now that we know who he is, however, he’s got some explaining to do. When I see him, I—” “God, no! Mel, you wouldn’t. You won’t, I won’t let you!” Mel went silent and blinked down at Maya. “Well, gosh, sis, you have to tell him….” “No, I don’t. I’m a daughter of Vidalia Brand. I don’t have to do a damned thing I don’t want to. And I don’t want to tell him about these babies.” Frowning until her brows touched, Mel said, “But why?” “My God, Mel, can’t you see what would happen? I’d be the biggest tabloid target since Monica Lewinsky, for God’s sake! The man’s going to run for the Senate! No. No, if I thought the scandal of being an unwed mother was bad, it’s nothing compared to the scandal of being at the center of a sex-and-politics story. Forget about it…and for God’s sake, don’t tell Mom.” “Don’t tell Mom what?” They both turned to see Vidalia stepping into the bedroom. She had a newspaper in her hand. “You wouldn’t mean this, by any chance, would you?” she asked, holding it up. Maya sighed. “Mom, I don’t want to be dragged out and flogged by the press. I don’t want my babies born in a flurry of political scandal and tabloid gossip. I won’t have it.” “I don’t blame you.” Maya met her mother’s eyes. “Then you…you agree with me?” “Oh, sure, hon. But that doesn’t mean the man doesn’t have a right to know he’s going to be a father.” Pressing her lips tight, Maya shook her head. “I…kind of thought he gave up that right when he lied about his name and skipped town without a word,” she said. She met her mother’s eyes. “These are my babies. Not his.” Her mother held her gaze for a long moment, and Maya knew she didn’t approve. She might make a lot of tacky, off-color remarks and come off as an irreverent, outrageous woman old enough to know better—but the truth was, her mother’s moral code ran deep. “Maya, darlin’ I’ve made some giant mistakes in my life. I’ve got no right to tell you the right thing to do when I’ve so often done just the opposite. But honey, it’s that experience of getting it wrong that makes me know what’s right.” She frowned, having no real idea what her mother was referring to. Her own father had known about all his daughters, he just hadn’t particularly cared. “I have a right to make my own mistakes, though. Don’t I mom?” Vidalia heaved a sigh and said, “You’re an adult. Soon to be a mamma yourself. I think you’re making a mistake, daughter, but that’s your right. So we’ll do this your way.” Maya sighed in relief. “Thank you.” Vidalia nodded and glanced at Mel. “Agreed?” she asked. “No. Someone ought to contact that man and make him face his responsibility.” “Mel, it’s not your place—” “I’m the babies’ aunt,” she said. “Anyone who wants to hurt them or slight them is gonna have to go through me to do it. Why should they be sleeping in…in twenty-year-old cribs or riding in that used minivan Maya bought, while their father sleeps in a mansion and drives around in a limo or something! It’s not fair to the babies.” Maya eyed her sister. “We got by just fine without mansions or limousines, Mel. My babies will, too.” Mel pitched the newspaper onto the floor and stomped out of the room. And while Maya looked after her worriedly, Vidalia only sighed. “Give her some time. She’s always seen herself as the protector of the family. She’ll cool down in a day or two.” “I hope so,” Maya said. But deep down, she wasn’t so sure. Chapter 6 Caleb sat in his father’s office, in his father’s chair, trying to keep the most prestigious law firm in Oklahoma up and running while his dad slowly made his peace with retirement. But despite the weight of the job, not to mention the decision hanging over his head, or the nip of winter in the air outside, his mind was far away…. It was in a little town in springtime. By a waterfall. With a girl named Maya Brand. Hell, it had been more than eight months. He should have forgotten about her, about that night, long before now. She certainly must have forgotten about him. Then again, he wouldn’t know if she hadn’t. He’d lied about his name that night. She had no clue who he was. Hell, she’d been worried about him having enough cash for the boarding house, as he recalled. He sighed deeply. That had been real, that night with Maya. He hadn’t spent a real, genuine night with a woman since. He’d been trying, with his frequent jaunts to political functions and state events. But mostly, the women who were on his arm were after something. Prestige, standing, power. Money. Usually money. They were phony, done up, made up, cinched up, dressed up, surgically enhanced, and polished to the point where the genuine parts were too well hidden to detect. Maya hadn’t wanted anything from him. She didn’t think he had anything to offer. But she’d liked him anyway. She’d liked him enough to want to spend the night in his arms. It had been so honest, and so simple, and so incredible with her…. Hell, he had to stop thinking about that woman. He glanced at the stack of memos and unopened mail on the desk, and began flipping through it to distract himself. The sight of a manila envelope with a Big Falls, Oklahoma, postmark caught his attention. Odd. He grabbed the envelope, tore it open and reached inside. Then he pulled out an 8 x 10 glossy photo of a woman who looked to be about eleven or twelve months pregnant. He smiled a bit at the sight of her belly, stretched to the size of a beach ball. His gaze moved slowly upward over the figure in the photo. She stood with one hand on the small of her back, a strand of mink brown hair hanging in her face, her eyes…. And then he froze. That face. Those eyes. An expletive burst from him without warning. His office door flew open, and Bobby McAllister, his ambitious right-hand man and future press secretary, should he decide he needed one, burst in, looking around with wide eyes. “What’s wrong!” Blinking slowly, licking his lips, his head spinning with disbelief, Caleb turned the photo over. There was one word on the back. Congratulations. Caleb’s throat went just as dry as desert sand. All this time…my God, she’d been alone, all this time…. “C.C., what is it?” Bobby asked again. Caleb bit his lips. “Exactly how long has it been since April first?” he asked. “April Fools’ Day?” Caleb almost moaned, but instead only nodded. Bobby thought for three seconds, then said, “About…eight or nine months. Why?” “About eight or nine months? I need to know exactly.” Blinking, Bobby whipped out his pocket calendar, flipped pages and said, “Thirty-seven weeks and two days.” “And how long does it take a woman to give birth?” “Nine mo—” “Exactly how long?” Caleb said, stopping Bobby before he finished speaking. Swallowing hard, Bobby tapped his smartphone. “Forty weeks is full term. Boss, why are you asking such odd questions? What’s going on?” He looked at Bobby. Bobby read the look, turned, closed the office door. When he turned back again, Caleb held up the photo. “Thirty-seven weeks and two days ago, I spent the night with this woman.” Bobby’s eyes widened to the size of saucers. He strode forward, snatched the photo from Caleb’s hand. “According to the date, this was taken the day before yesterday.” “I know.” Flipping it over, Bobby read the back. “This is…this is extortion! Blackmail. They can’t get away with this!” Frowning, Caleb said, “Who can’t?” ‘‘Jacobson, of course. Your only real opponent for the senatorial race.” “I haven’t even declared my candidacy yet.” “He knows the game. He knows that’s just a formality. This is a preemptive strike. Who else would want to get this kind of dirt on you, C.C.?” Caleb shrugged. Silently, he thought perhaps Bobby was taking his candidacy a bit too much for granted—especially now. But he didn’t say that out loud. No sense sending the ambitious young genius into panic mode. “I don’t think it’s blackmail, because they don’t ask for anything. And if it was Jacobson this envelope would have been delivered to the press, not to me. Don’t you think?” “Well then…who is it? You think it’s the woman?” He shrugged. “Could be. I didn’t think she knew who I was, but I suppose she could have found out.” He sighed, lowering his head. It hurt deeply, to think that Maya might have seen through his facade of being an unknown drifter. It had been so special to have someone be attracted to him for him, not for his name or his legacy. He gave himself a shake and went on. “Now she probably figures I owe her. And I suppose she’s right, at that.” “Oh, for crying out—are you saying you think this bull is true? You think you fathered this woman’s child in one night? For God’s sake, she was probably pregnant before you ever met her. She was probably looking for some rich scapegoat to pin it on.” He drew a deep breath, sighed. “I don’t think so.” “Why the hell not?” Bobby was so upset his voice squeaked on the question. He tossed the photo down and awaited an answer. “First, because she didn’t have a clue who I was—” “Or so she made you believe,” Bobby interjected. “And secondly, because she was…not that kind of girl.” Bobby stared at him as if he’d grown a second head. “Not that kind of girl. She was not that kind of girl? C.C., have you gone out of your mind here or what?” “She was a virgin.” Bobby just blinked at him. Then he looked at the photo and blinked again. “But…she’s…my age.” “I’ve got to go out there, Bobby.” Bobby’s head came up, eyes wide. “Oh, no. No way. That’s the worst thing you can possibly do right now.” “I’m going. Make something up. Cover for me. Say I’m sick with the flu and taking a few days off. Or better yet, say I needed some private time for the holidays. There’s only a week until Christmas, so that sounds reasonable. Say anything you want, Bobby, but I have to go out there. I have to see her.” Bobby closed his eyes, shook his head. “If this leaks—” “It won’t.” Bobby groaned softly, his hand going to his forehead as if to ward off a headache as he paced the office three times. Then, finally, he sighed and faced Caleb again. “Where will I be able to reach you?” “On my cell, where there’s a signal. It’s a town called Big Falls,” he said. “I’ll call you when I get there.” He tucked the photo back into its envelope, tucked it under his arm and started for the door. “Boss?” “Yeah?” he asked, turning. “Don’t let this woman play you for a fool.” He felt his lips pull into a bitter smile. “Don’t you worry, Bobby. I’m a grown-up.” But he didn’t feel like one. He felt sick and queasy and lightheaded. He left the office, taking the elevator to the basement parking garage and then driving back to the mansion. But the symptoms didn’t ease up. His hands were shaking, for crying out loud! His palms were damp. He didn’t know what the hell to think. He was so distracted that he drove the Lexus right through two stop signs on the way home, and at the second one, he nearly got hit. He skidded to a stop in the driveway, ran straight upstairs and tugged a suitcase from underneath his bed. He whipped open the closet and stared in at the rows of expensive suits, the drawers full of designer shirts. And then he thought to himself, what if she wasn’t the one who sent that photo? What if she still didn’t know who he was? Okay, so it was wishful thinking. But it could happen, right? And if there was even a chance…. He thought about her eyes, the honesty in them. And how sincere she’d seemed when she’d talked about trying to be respectable, to get the town’s elite to accept her. He’d believed her. He still believed her. Damn, what must this pregnancy have done to all her efforts? He winced at the thought. Slowly he reached for the bottom drawer and pulled out his entire collection of worn-out jeans—all three pairs. He put two in his suitcase and put one pair on. He dug for sweatshirts, found an old fleece-lined denim coat way in the back of his closet, and dug out that stupid battered cowboy hat, as well, for good measure. He wanted to see her as a man—not as a billionaire. He finished his packing hastily, then carried the suitcase, coat and hat downstairs and set them on the floor near the back door, before forcibly slowing himself down, taking a few calming breaths. He couldn’t just walk out on his father without a word. Look at what had happened last time. Stiffening his spine, he went to his father’s study. The wheelchair turned slowly when he entered the room. Cain didn’t use it all the time—only when he was tired or stubborn. He could walk, though his uneven gait required the use of a cane. His stern face was more disturbing now, since the stroke. One side reflected his feelings—that side was looking decidedly pissed off just now—while the other side remained lax and limp. His father lifted his good hand, and Caleb saw the photograph he was holding. He glanced quickly around the room, half expecting to see Bobby lurking in a corner somewhere, but there was no sign of him. “No, it wasn’t Bobby,” Cain said, speaking from one side of his mouth, his words still slightly slurred. “But I did call him. Whoever sent this to you at the office wanted to be sure you got it. Sent a copy here, as well. And I’m glad they did. This is something I ought to know about, don’t you think?” “No. You don’t need the stress of this—and I can deal with it. I’m about to deal with it.” “Sit down, son.” “Father, I’ve made my decision. I have to go out there, see for myself what’s going on.” His father glared at him, and Caleb finally sat down. He didn’t like upsetting the old man. He didn’t want to set off another stroke, or worse. Mean as hell he might be, but he was also in a fragile state right now, though he would rather die than admit it. “You were a twin, you know.” Caleb sighed, closing his eyes, wishing to God his father would deliver any other long practiced speech than this one. He hated this one. “Your mother carried two of you. Two boys. One bigger, stronger, and the other small and weak. Only one of them born alive.” He knuckled a button, moving his wheelchair closer. “The doctors said it was just as well. One strong child was much better off than two weak ones. As it was, the stronger of the two survived. And that one was you.” “Right.” Caleb had never accepted this, and it was largely why he refused to go by the name Cain. But though he rejected it, hearing it dug deep. “I’ve heard this story a hundred times, Father, and it has no more merit now than it ever did. Fetuses do not think or plot or conspire. I didn’t kill off my weaker brother so I could survive, and the fact that I lived and he didn’t is nothing more than genetics.” “Garbage!” his father said in a burst “You’re my son. Your mother died giving birth to you. You carry my name. So you’ll always do what you must to survive. You understand?” He opened his mouth to argue, closed it again, and said nothing, getting up to leave. “I was a twin, too, you know.” Caleb, frowning, turned to stare at his father. “No. I didn’t know that. You never told me.” “It never came up. My birth was just like yours, Caleb. The stronger twin survived, the weaker one didn’t make it.” He shook his head. “It’s genetics, yes, but it’s also a marker, Caleb. A reminder that the strong survive, and that we, you and I, were destined for something more than ordinary men. And that sometimes sacrifice is necessary to keep the dream alive.” “It was a quirk of fate. Not a sign from God,” Caleb told him gently. “Dad, you and your destiny had nothing to do with your twin dying. No more than I did with mine.” Cain shook his head stubbornly. “Nothing can ruin a political career faster than a woman and a sex scandal, Caleb. Nothing. Now you take my advice. You pay this woman enough to keep her quiet, and then, later on, you get a DNA test done very quietly. If it’s yours, you pay her some more. All it takes. Send her and the child away somewhere. But do it all through third parties. Send Bobby out there, or Martin and Jacob Levitz. They’re your lawyers, that’s what they’re paid for. Just don’t get personally involved in this.” Slowly, Caleb went to his father. Keeping his tone low, he said, “I’m already personally involved, Dad. It doesn’t get much more personal than this. And I may be your son, but I’m my mother’s son, too, God rest her soul. And I think she’d want me to do the right thing here.” His father’s head came up, one eye snapping with anger, the other dull and glazed over. “She died so you could be born to carry on this family’s proud tradition! She would want you to protect that legacy at any cost!” Caleb smiled, leaned in and clasped his father’s hand once, firmly. “If I have a child, won’t he be a part of that legacy?” He sighed when his father didn’t waver in the least. “I have to do what I think is right, Dad. I’ll only be gone for a few days. You’ve got your nurse and the household staff, and if you need anything they can’t handle, call Bobby.” Straightening, he turned and walked out of the room, even though his father’s voice shouted after him all the way. He only stopped long enough to pick up his suitcase, and then he headed out. Two hours later, tired and wary, Caleb pulled into the parking lot of the OK Corral, that saloon he remembered so well, in the middle of Big Falls, Oklahoma. He hadn’t been here in the winter before. It was nothing like the city, and he couldn’t help feel a little stirring of the senses as José’s truck rolled over the narrow roads and in between hillsides that looked wild and ominous. They were almost bare of leaves, some of those trees, and the ground was brown and barren. He wondered why there were no cars in the lot at the Saloon. Then he realized he had arrived in the middle of a Monday afternoon. The Corral probably didn’t even open until nightfall. He’d driven Maya home, past a boarding house as he recalled but it had been dark as pitch and he barely remembered which way he’d taken her. He looked up and down the road. Saw a few men in red-and-black flannel, and some in camouflage from head to toe, hurrying to their pickups with gun racks in the back windows and shotguns in the racks. Hunting season. This was not the city. Here, if you were a man, you owned a gun and knew how to use it. And hunting season was the be all and end all of your holiday experience. Swallowing hard, he got out of the truck and started on a path designed to intercept one burly hunter before he reached the front door of the ammo shop. He paused briefly to snap up his fleece and denim coat and wondered if the thing looked rural enough to get him by. “Excuse me,” he said, and he managed to draw the big guy’s attention. Jowls and whiskers was the impression he got when the man faced him. “You lost?” the stranger asked. “Actually, I, uh…I’m looking for a place to get a room. I didn’t see a hotel in town anywhere, so I thought….” “We ain’t got no hotel,” the fellow said, putting the accent on the first syllable. “That’s what I thought when I didn’t see one,” he said. “I seem to recall there was a boarding house last time I was here, but I’ve forgotten where, exactly.” The fellow shrugged. “Yep. There’s a boardin’ house, all right. You might could get a room there. But I don’t know for sure.” “Er…right. I might…could. If I knew where it was.” The man just stared at him, chewing. “Can you tell me how to get to the boarding house?” he asked, figuring direct was the way to go here. “End of the road, on yer left. ‘Bout a mile up.” He pointed. “Thanks. Good luck with the hunting. I, uh, hope you catch a big one.” “Catch?” The guy grinned almost ear to ear and strode away, shaking his head. “He hopes I catch a big one,” he muttered, chuckling to himself all the way into the shop. Caleb stared after him, saw him speaking to the fellow at the counter, and then they both looked his way and laughed some more. Hell. He was fitting in here like a duck would fit in at a henhouse. He was going to have to do better. He turned to go back toward the pickup and came face to face with a young woman with short black hair and dark eyes. For a moment they stared at each other as recognition clawed at his mind. And then it seemed to hit them both at once. She was one of Maya’s sisters—he’d met her at the saloon that night. Even as his mind grasped who she was, hers seemed to identify him. Because her eyes went narrow and her lips thinned. He thrust out a hand in greeting. She thrust out a fist in a right hook that caught him in the jaw and made lightning flash in his brain. When he shook his brains back into order, he found himself on his butt on the ground and she was revving the motor of a well-worn minivan and speeding away. He rubbed his jaw. Hell, he hadn’t expected a warm welcome, but he hadn’t expected an ambush, either. The question was, would Maya be as glad to see him as her sister had obviously been? Suddenly he was having second thoughts about finding out. Maybe he’d better try to get the lay of the land just a bit first—rather than waltzing right out to that cozy little farmhouse with the red shutters, right away. Even if he could remember where it was. Maybe it would be wise to make sure there wouldn’t be armed infantrymen, or maybe just sisters, lining the driveway, with the intent to blow his head off first and ask questions later. Swallowing hard, he nodded. To the boarding house…then he’d see. Getting to his feet, he got back into his gardener’s pickup truck and twisted the rearview mirror to get a look at his jaw. Shoot. It was already starting to bruise. Chapter 7 “Nothing yet?” Mel asked, occasionally rubbing her knuckles as the five of them sat down around the dinner table. Four sat in ordinary ladderback chairs. One had been prodded into the giant recliner someone had hauled in from the living room. Maya sat there, feet up, tray positioned to one side. It would have been in her lap, she supposed, if she still had a lap. “No,” Maya said with a scowl. “Nothing yet.” “That’s okay, hon. Christmas is coming.” Kara grinned, and there was a knowing twinkle in her eye. “Things are bound to get better.” “How are you feeling, Maya?” Selene asked. “Like a beached whale. Why do you ask?” Selene shrugged and smiled a secretive smile. “You’ll feel better soon.” “I’ll feel better when I have these babies,” she snapped. “Oh, come on, don’t be so grouchy,” Kara said. “This should be a cheerful time for you.” “She can be grouchy if she’s of a mind to,” Vidalia put in. “It’s allowed the first few weeks and the last few weeks. And you have to admit, she’s been a real trooper in between.” Her mother smiled indulgently at her. “You all just try carrying a couple bags of feed tied around your middle for a few months and tell me how cheerful you are.” Everyone went silent, and for a moment they just ate while the tension built. Maya’s three sisters kept looking at their mother sort of…expectantly. Finally Maya picked up on those looks, and, narrowing her eyes, she said, “What’s going on that I don’t know about?” Vidalia licked her lips. “Well, I don’t suppose there’s any point in waiting for you to be in a better mood to tell you this, is there?” “Not unless it can wait until these kids are tucked in their cradles, there isn’t,” Maya said. Vidalia lifted her dark, perfectly shaped brows. “Fine. Then I’ll just tell you flat out. That man is back in town.” Her sizable stomach clenched—no small task. “What man?” Her mother let her gaze slide down to Maya’s belly and with a nod said, “That man. Ida-May Peabody called. She said he showed up this afternoon, got himself a room at her boarding house.” “Holy Chri—.” “Watch your mouth, young lady,” Vidalia scolded. “Mother, really,” Selene said. “You say more off-color things than anyone.” “But I do not take the Lord’s name in vain, nor will I tolerate anyone else doing so.” Maya was pushing her tray away and struggling uselessly to get out of the chair. And Selene, the silver sister said, “Hon, it was inevitable, him coming back here. And besides, it’s for the best. He has a right to know that he’s going to be a father, don’t you think?” “Right? What right? Geez, Selene, he didn’t even give me his real name!” She pulled herself partway up, then fell back again. “Will someone get me the hell out of this chair!” “Your language, Maya,” Vidalia scolded. Kara shot to her feet and hurried to her sister’s aid, gripping her arms and tugging. She was really leaning into it, too, Maya thought. “Well, I couldn’t care less about his rights,” Mel put in, rubbing her knuckles again. “But he does have some responsibilities here, and if you’re smart, you’ll make sure he lives up to them. You’ll feel much better with someone else shouldering part of the financial burden, if nothing else.” Kara tugged harder. “I don’t need any help from any man. You leave him alone, Mel!” The moment she said it there was a knock at the front door, about ten feet away from the dining room. Kara gave one last yank, and the chair sort of thudded into its upright position, launching Maya out of it like a rocket. Kara screamed bloody murder, falling backward to the floor. Maya landed right on top of her like a sack of feed, and poor Kara’s scream turned into a burst of air, driven from her lungs by the impact. The others flew to their feet and swarmed, and whoever had been at the front door flung it open and ran inside, no doubt alarmed by Kara’s bloodcurdling scream. “Good God, are you all right?” a man’s voice said. “Watch your mouth, young man,” Vidalia scolded. But Maya barely heard her mother’s disapproving tone. Not when that voice had sounded so familiar. Not when she focused her vision to see those scuffed up and battered boots a foot away. And certainly not when two very strong hands closed on her shoulders and gently eased her off her sister, rolling her carefully until she was sitting on the floor, bent knees up and in front of her as if she was getting ready to give birth. Then he crouched in front of her, gripped her underneath her arms and easily got her up to her feet. She looked up—right into those blue eyes that had melted her resolve nine months ago, minus a couple of weeks. And in spite of herself, the blood rushed to her cheeks and heated them. “Hello again, Maya Brand,” he said. “Um…hi.” Self-consciously, she reached up to straighten her hair. Then she realized what a wasted effort that was. He was not going to notice what her hair looked like. “You okay?” Her lips thinned. “Fine.” She glanced down at Kara. “The more pertinent concern here is, have I flattened my poor sister?” Kara was already picking her gangly self up off the floor. “It’s my fault,” she said. “I’m such a klutz.” “I’m sure that’s an exaggeration,” Caleb said, finally letting go of Maya long enough to reach out, giving Kara a hand up. “A pretty girl like you could never be referred to as a klutz. You look more like a swan.” Kara smiled and lowered her head, blushing furiously. Selene launched into her “your body believes what your mind thinks” speech. But Maya ignored her. Because Caleb was turning back to her now, and his hands were curling around her shoulders, and his eyes were staring into hers. For a few seconds, anyway. But then they moved, skimming down her body, reaching her belly and widening just slightly. He didn’t say “Holy cow,” but she heard it anyway. “Guess I’ve put on a little weight since you saw me last,” she said. “Uh…yeah, a little bit.” He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off her belly. So she put a finger under his chin and tipped his head upward until he met her eyes again, at which point he said, “We’ve got some talking to do, don’t you think?” Drawing a breath, she sighed and looked away. “You don’t need to look like that, Caleb. I don’t want anything from you.” He lifted his brows even as Mel’s hand came down on his shoulder from behind. He turned at her tug, facing her. “Well, hello again,” he said. “Mel, isn’t it? Sorry we didn’t get more time to talk this morning.” “This morning?” Maya asked. She saw Caleb rub his jaw, saw the slightly bruised skin there, saw Mel’s knuckles all red, and said, “Mel, what did you do to him?” Mel ignored her, her narrowed eyes on Caleb. “Maya may not want any help with this, mister, but you can bet your—” “Melusine,” Vidalia said, cutting her off. “This is between your sister and this fellow! You stay out of it until I tell you otherwise.” Then she moved forward, walked up to Caleb, who turned again, facing her this time. And she smiled and said, “But believe me, mister, if I think you’re not treating my daughter right, I will tell her otherwise.” Kara cleared her throat. “You really don’t want to mess with Mom and Mel,” she said. “You all sound like a gang of thugs,” Selene said, getting to her feet. “Whatever is meant to happen between these two is going to happen, no matter what you all do or say or threaten. So why don’t you just get out of the way and let it?” Blinking, giving his head a shake, Caleb drew a breath as if about to respond to one or all of them. Then, instead, he just closed his mouth, turned and faced Maya. “Can we please talk? Alone?” She nodded. “We can go—” “To dinner,” he said. “I, um…made reservations.” Lowering her head, Maya said, “I’d really just as soon not be seen with you in public, Caleb. You have no idea how efficiently the rumor mill works around here.” He nodded. “I can guess. That’s why I made the reservation in Tucker Lake.” Tucker Lake, the next town over. He had thought this through, then, hadn’t he? Maya licked her lips. “Haggerty House?” “How’d you know?” She shrugged. “It’s the best restaurant around, and one of the few in Tucker Lake that takes reservations.” Then she shrugged. “Okay. Sure. I never touched a bite of dinner, and the food it incredible there.” “Are you sure you should be riding that far, hon? You’re carrying—” “I’ll be fine, Mom.” Her mother frowned, but nodded. “Guess you know best, not having ever given birth before. I wouldn’t presume to advise you, just because I’ve been through it five times over.” Selene met Kara’s eyes, and they both shook their heads. Mel stood beside her mother as if in full support of her opinion on the matter. Maya glanced down at her clothes. She wore a pair of pseudo-jeans, big enough for all four of her sisters, held up with a drawstring, and a smock top that looked, in her opinion, like a Christmas tree skirt. “I was going to say I’d change first, but I basically look the same in any of the assortment of tents in my closet, so it would be pretty much useless. Let’s just go, shall we?” “I’ll get your coat,” Selene said with a wink. “It’s cold outside.” She did so, not handing the heavy woolen coat to Maya, but to Caleb. “Gee, you’re so subtle it’s scary,” Maya said. Selene sent her an innocent, wide-eyed look, while Caleb held her coat for her. She slid her arms in and didn’t bother trying to button it. She could, but even this super-sized coat was getting snug around the middle. Taking her arm, Caleb drew her outside, down the steps. She glanced up at his pickup truck, made a face and said, “Listen, I don’t know how much you know about pregnant women but—” “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all.” She nodded. “Bumpy rides have been known to induce labor. And your truck there doesn’t look all that…gentle.” Turning, she looked up at him. “I don’t want to offend you here, but would you mind terribly if we took my van instead?” “Hey, no offense taken.” She nodded and led him across to the old barn, some fifty yards away from the house, which served as a garage. He held her arm the whole way. She reached for the sliding door, but he stopped her with a shake of his head, opened it himself and stood looking at the three Brand family vehicles. “It looks excessive, to someone like you, us having three vehicles.” She watched him as she spoke, knowing to him three junkers like this probably seemed like living at poverty level and waiting for him to admit it. He didn’t, damn him. So she just went on. “But even now, we’re often short a vehicle. The pickup there is essential out here. And the Bronco is for rough terrain. Mom traded in her old station wagon for it over the summer. And then there’s the minivan. I just bought it. Used, of course, but it’s not in bad shape for what I paid. Figured I’d need a reliable vehicle of my own with these…er…with the baby coming.” He nodded. “Good thinking.’’ He escorted her to the passenger door and held out a hand. “Keys?” “Oh, it’s not locked. And the keys are in the ignition.” He lifted his brows but made no comment as he helped her into the van, then went around and got in behind the wheel. He adjusted the seat and mirror, started the engine and drove it out, then got out and went back to close the barn door. As he drove out the driveway, he said, “You may have to help me find this place. I made the reservations over the phone and got the recommendation from Ida-May at the boarding house. Do you know the way?” She lifted her brows and looked at him. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just stop at a diner? I mean—looking at you, I would hardly think you could afford a highbrow place as nice as Haggerty House. There’s Polly’s Kitchen just off the highway. You can get a whole chicken dinner there for six ninety-five.” He watched her face carefully as she spoke, so much so that she wondered what he was looking for. Had he detected the edge of sarcasm in her tone? But then he sighed, almost in relief. “I’ve been working pretty steadily since we…I mean, well, you know. I’ve got some money set aside.” So he was still lying to her. Still willing to let her believe he was some poor drifter, rather than one of the wealthiest men in the state. Why? To protect his millions from his own children? Drawing a breath, she sighed. It had been stupid to let that hopeful little light flare up in her heart at the sight of him. Served her right. So she still thought he was a penniless drifter. Either that or she was a very good actress. Good. He would let her think it a bit longer. That way he could be sure her reactions to him were based on him, and nothing else. He was pleasantly surprised when they got to the restaurant, a giant-sized Victorian place with twelve foot ceilings and full-length windows. The place was beatifully decorated and staffed by beautiful women who looked related. God, Maya looked so different. So…big. He didn’t think he’d ever seen a pregnant woman this large before. But the changes went further than that. Her eyes looked tired. Not as sparkling or full of life as they had been before. Her face seemed drawn and tight, and he imagined her goal of trying to become accepted by the good folk of Big Falls had blown up in her face, as well. The conservative residents of small towns were not known for being big on unwed mothers. A waitress greeted them, wearing a tiny black dress with a white apron. “Oh!” she exclaimed upon seeing Maya’s condition. “Your first?” Maya nodded. “You’re new here, aren’t you?” She was relieved it wasn’t one of the Haggerty sisters, because she knew them all, and didn’t feel like explaining who Caleb was. She hadn’t seen them since her infamous one-night stand, but she was sure they would have heard about it by now. The pretty thing nodded hard. “Just helping out during the holiday rush.” She smiled ear to ear and glanced up at Caleb. “You must be so excited! And you,” she said, looking at Maya again. “You look as if you’re due any day now.” “Yes,” Maya said, at the same time that Caleb said, “Almost three more weeks.” Maya looked at him and frowned. The waitress only laughed. “Sure, I understand! I’ve had three myself, and I always spent the last few weeks wishing it would happen and get over with.” Maya slowly drew her suddenly suspicious gaze away from Caleb’s to look at the waitress. “You’ve had three? And you got your figure back?” “Oh, honey, sure I did. You will, too, don’t you worry. Now, come on, let’s get you off your feet.” She led them to a nice table with plenty of room on either side, in a rear corner, with huge windows on both walls. Caleb took Maya’s coat, held her chair, braced her arm as she eased herself into it. God, it must be hard carrying so much extra weight around. She wasn’t a big woman to begin with. “My goodness, he’s good,” the waitress said. “Does he give you backrubs at night, too, hon?” She sent Caleb a wink. “Believe me, her back has to be screaming by now.” “I believe it.” She took their drink orders at last and promised to hurry back with their menus. But the second she left the table, Maya speared him with those gem green eyes of hers, and said, “How did you know my due date? I didn’t even think you knew I was pregnant.” He blinked, searched his mind. “What do you mean?” “I mean, you just told that waitress I was due in just under three weeks.” “You told her any day now.” He leaned forward on his elbows. “So which is it, Maya?” She narrowed her eyes on him. “Both. Full term would be January sixth—just under three weeks from now. However, my doctor has no doubt I’m going to go early.” He blinked and felt a little bolt of alarm. “You mean…the baby’s going to be premature? Isn’t that dangerous?” The waitress came back with their drinks. Milk for Maya. Mineral water for Caleb. She handed them their menus, smiled brightly and hurried on her way. Maya was still staring at him. “It’s not early enough to be any cause for alarm, Caleb. Actually, early deliveries are common in cases like mine.” He frowned at her. “And what kind of cases are those?” “We’re getting off the subject here. You knew my due date right to the day. Now how did you find that out?” He lowered his eyes. “Forty weeks…from the night we spent together. I was just guessing.” Lifting his gaze to hers again, he stared hard at her, watched her face. “It is my child you’re carrying. Isn’t it, Maya?” It was her turn to look away. “No.” “No?” Shock washed through him like a splash of ice water in the face. “No,” she said. “It’s my child I’m carrying. Not yours. Not anyone’s. Just mine. Do you understand that, Caleb?” He felt that ice water come to a slow simmer. “Hell, no, I don’t understand that.” “Well then, let me see if I can explain it. You were a stranger, passing through town. We were a one-night stand. There was no relationship. No commitment. I got pregnant, Caleb. My problem. My situation. Not yours. You’re still just a drifter passing through. There’s nothing for you here.” There was, he thought slowly, one hell of a lot more going on with this woman than met the eye. He resisted the urge to lose his temper. Not only because she was in a tender state, but because he sensed it would do him no good. “Maybe I need to rephrase my question?” She shrugged. “You were a virgin the night we made love,” he said, keeping his voice low, leaning over the table. Her cheeks went pinker, and she looked away from him, focused on the view outside. Rolling meadows, lined now in dying grasses, and woodlands beyond. “And according to the town gossips, you haven’t so much as had lunch with a man since. Most of them are going out of their minds trying to figure out how you got pregnant, according to the very talkative Ida-May at the boarding house. Even though a few may have seen us that night, the idea of the untouchable Maya Brand indulging in a one-night stand with a stranger seems to be beyond the realm of possibility.” “It’s really none of their damned business, though, is it?” He let his smile come, even though he sensed she wouldn’t like it. He liked her spunk. “One busybody I met in the general store even put forth the theory that you visited a sperm bank and were artificially inseminated.” “Oh, for the love of—” He covered one of her hands with his own. “Please tell me the truth, Maya. Did I father this child you’re carrying?” Staring down at his hand on top of hers, she said, “Yes.” Then, lifting her head slowly, “Now you tell me the truth about something. For once.” He frowned, wondering what the hell that implied. But he said only, “Okay.” “Why did you come back here?” Ouch. That was not one he wanted to answer. But he’d promised her the truth, and she was damned well going to hear it. “I received a photograph of you taken just a couple of days ago. On the back there was one word. ‘Congratulations.’” She only stared at him steadily. No expression on her face. As if she was waiting for him to finish the story, or to deliver the punchline or something. But when he said nothing, she lifted her brows. “But…who? How…?” Then she drew a breath, and her eyes widened even further. “You thought I sent it, didn’t you?” He sighed deeply. “Hell, I didn’t know what to think. But yeah, it did enter my mind that you might have sent it.” “Well. I guess we know where we stand, then, don’t we?” “No, frankly, I don’t have a clue where we stand, Maya.” “Caleb, if I’d had any idea how to find you to tell you I was pregnant, I would have called or shown up in person. I wouldn’t have sent some cryptic photo with a note on the back. God, what would be the point?” Good question, he thought. What was the point? “Listen…it doesn’t matter who sent the photo—” “Oh, it matters. Believe me, it matters. And I have my theories on that. But the point is, I didn’t know how to find you. I tried, but there was no such person as Caleb Cain in Tulsa.” He licked his lips. “I…move around a lot.” “You lie a lot.” “Regardless, I’m here now.” “So what?” He licked his lips. “Well, hell, Maya, I don’t know. You’re going to be the mother of my child. I guess I’d like to get to know you a little bit. And if you think I’m the kind of man who’s going to let you take full responsibility for this all alone, you’d better think again. I’m going to take an equal share of the financial responsibility for this baby.” She leaned a bit forward—not a lot, because there wasn’t room between her belly and the table for a lot—and she said, “In exchange for what? Partial custody? Or the whole enchilada? What do you want, Caleb?” He held up both hands. “Hey, hey, hold on now. Is that why you’re so hostile? You think I came out here to try to take your baby away from you? To fight you for custody or something?” She blinked rapidly. “You’d have to kill me to do that, Caleb. Just so you know in advance. You’d have to kill me. And I don’t care who your father is, or how many millions you have.” Tears pooled in her eyes. He was stunned into silence for a long moment. And then he drew a breath, sighed deeply. “So you do know who I am.” She nodded. “I found out yesterday, when I saw your picture in the paper.” Twenty-four hours before that photo arrived on my doorstep, he thought. He shook himself. A tear managed to escape her glittering eye, and it rolled down her cheek. And all of the sudden, not only did he doubt she would try to blackmail him—he didn’t care. Moreover, if she did, he wouldn’t blame her. “Dammit, I didn’t come out here to upset you.” Reaching across the table, he covered both her hands with his. “Please don’t cry.” Too late. The tears were streaming. She snatched up a napkin and wiped angrily at them, even as the waitress came back to take their orders. He hoped to God this entire discussion hadn’t ruined Maya’s appetite. Slamming the napkin down on the table, Maya sniffled and said, “I want the T-bone. The big one. Rare.” “Mashed or fries?” the waitress asked. “Both.” Smiling, the waitress scribbled and said, “Gravy or sour cream, hon?” “Both.” “Anything on the side?” “Yeah. The fried chicken.” She closed her menu with a snap and handed it back to the waitress, who turned to Caleb, pen poised. “Um…the salmon?” he ventured. “Sure thing.” She scribbled and turned to leave; then, turning back, she eyed Maya’s half-empty glass. “More milk?” Maya nodded. Her tears were gone now, and as soon as the waitress was gone, she faced Caleb squarely. “I did not send you that photograph.” “That is becoming painfully obvious,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t even care who sent me the photo, Maya. If this baby is mine, I want to take responsibility. That’s all.” “Then why did you lie about who you were?” He lowered his head, shook it. “I…had my reasons. What difference does it make, Maya? You know the truth now.” She pressed her lips together. “Not that I trust anything that comes out of your mouth at this point, Caleb, but if you want to spend one more minute with me, I want you to swear you won’t try to take my babies away from me. Swear on all you hold dear, Caleb, or leave right now.” “I swear. I’ll put it in writing if you want me to. I can have my…wait a minute.” He frowned then. “Wait just a minute. What did you just say?’’ She bit her lower lip, averted her face. “Maya, did you just say ‘babies’?” Slowly, she faced him. Then she drew a breath, blew it out again. “Hell, Caleb, you might as well know. I’m carrying two babies, not one.” “Two? Twins?” She nodded. “That’s why the doctor expects me to go early. Twins hardly ever go to term.” He just sat there, stunned to the bone. A deep tremor worked through him, and his gaze fell to her swollen belly. “Are they both…all right?” he said softly. “If the way they kick is any indication, they’re fine.” Those words only made his stomach clench up tighter as his father’s words replayed in his mind. The strong survive, the weak don’t. It’s our legacy, Caleb. And it’s a reminder…. “What…what does your doctor say? Do they have any way of knowing for sure that they’re both…?” He saw her face then, clouding with worry. And he decided to shut up. She was going through enough without him saying things that would scare her to death. There was no reason to think…. Hell, twins were born healthy every day. They were! “I go in every week for a checkup,” she told him. “They listen to the heartbeats, and we’ve done ultra-sounds. These kids are huge, for twins. Over five pounds each already. And they’re fine. They’re Brands. They can’t be anything less than fine.” “They’re not just Brands, they’re Montgomerys, too.” She shrugged. “So I suppose they’ll have politics in their DNA?” He smiled at her, liking her slightly lighter tone. “Maybe we should ask them to check for it when they do the blood tests.” Her expression changed. Lightness fled. Her eyes became…thunderous. He’d never used that term to describe a facial expression before. But it described hers now. “A blood test? You…mean a paternity test, don’t you? You want my babies to have a paternity test.” He blinked fast. “Well…isn’t that pretty standard…I mean, in cases where the parents aren’t married?” “It’s standard, all right. In cases where the mother is being called a liar.” She glared at him. “Help me up.” “Oh, come on, Maya. I wasn’t calling you a liar. I…you’re…I…” “Help me up now.” She gripped the table and started to rise. He jumped to her aid but found himself awkwardly unsure where to put his hands. He finally settled on gripping her forearms and pulling, even as he tried to fast-talk his way out of the slam he’d inadvertently delivered. “Please don’t leave. Have dinner, come on. You’re overreacting to everything I say here.” “I’m not overreacting. And I’m not leaving,” she said, once she was upright. He frowned. “Then…where are you going?” Tilting her head to one side, she said, “Caleb, there are two hefty babies writhing around on top of my bladder right now. Where do you think I’m going?” “Oh. Uh. Sorry.” She tossed her head and headed across the restaurant to the rest room in the rear. And despite her proud stance, she sort of…waddled when she walked away, which took all the indignant outrage out of her exit. He sat back down, feeling like he’d just been through Round One of a fight with no rules and no reason. The woman was obviously an emotional basket case right now. And no wonder. Twins. And she was alone. But why the hell did she seem so determined to see him as the enemy? The waitress brought the food—Maya’s order took up two plates—and a whole pitcher of milk. He waited for Maya to return, and then got up and met her halfway to escort her back to the table. She sat down, looking a bit calmer. “I did some thinking,” she said, “and I’ve decided that you should go home.” “I should?” “Uh-huh. First thing in the morning. Leave an address, phone number, something like that. I’ll call you when the kids arrive. We’ll work out a time for you to come visit them. And I promise I’ll be generous about that, so long as you don’t try to take them away from me.” She shrugged. “And if you want to pitch in on expenses, fine. I won’t fight it.” She spoke as if it was all decided. “I see.” She dug into her food as if she was starved. And as Caleb watched her, he thought she looked very smug and superior. As if she made the rules and he had no choice but to obey. He was a freaking Montgomery, for crying out loud. He was the third richest man in the country, a former mayor, and the predicted winner of the senatorial race even though he had yet to declare himself a candidate. And her attitude chafed, big time. He picked at his food, while she finished hers. Finally she looked up at him, dabbing her face with a napkin. She’d barely left a crumb on her plate. “So, are we agreed?” she asked him. He pursed his lips, crossed his arms over his chest, looked her in the eye and shook his head. “Not on your life.” Blinking in surprise, she stared at him. “Why not?” “Because you’re acting like a little dictator, and I don’t like it. So, no, Maya. I think maybe I’d better look into things just a bit more thoroughly before I agree to anything regarding our children.” Her brows rose. “Jumping the gun, aren’t you? You don’t have your precious paternity tests yet.” “No. But I will.” “Oooh, yes. You never know, I might be conspiring to take you for everything you have. Now that I’ve figured out that would amount to slightly more than a pair of scuffed boots and a rusted-out pickup truck, that is.” “Why are you so determined to treat me like the enemy here?” “As far as I’m concerned, you are the enemy!” “Fine,” he said, and he got to his feet. “Then this conversation is over.” “It is not over,” she retorted in a calm tone, “until after dessert.” His anger seemed to wash away, and something warm and fuzzy rose up to take its place. Only for a moment. But it was there. He lowered his head to hide his amusement from her and tried very hard to regain his anger and indignation. He kept trying, right through the cheesecake and coffee. But the way she tasted the chocolate syrup on the tip of her finger weakened his resolve. And the whipped cream that stuck to her upper lip annihilated it altogether. She was angry. Okay, he figured she had a right to be angry. He’d lied to her. And now he was back, and she was afraid. Protecting her babies the way a mother bear might protect her cubs from anything she perceived to be a threat to them. That wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, if anything, he ought to appreciate it. It meant she cared deeply about her babies. His babies. It meant she would be a great mother to them, protect them with everything in her. He just wished she didn’t feel they needed protecting from him. Chapter 8 Terror was an ice-cold feeling that made him shiver more than the freakishly chilly wind. Twins. God, twins. Just like he’d been. The cruel joke of the name he’d inherited from his father still twisted in his gut like a blade. And the old man’s words echoed like a curse. About how he’d been the stronger, and how he must always do whatever he must to survive. Hell, he knew, with the rational part of his mind, that a child in the womb couldn’t cause premeditated harm. Couldn’t even harbor an ill thought. But it dug at him, ate at him. Always had. And now he was the father, and dammit, there were two babies. Twins. He was scared to death. What if something happened to one of them? What if only one survived? Standing stock-still in the cold, damp night, outside the boarding house. There were white candle bulbs burning in every window and a huge festive wreath on the front door. He blinked at the unfamiliar burning sensation in his eyes, the odd tightening of his throat, the hitch in his breathing. He still didn’t know who the hell had sent the photograph. It suddenly seemed like the least important thing in the world. What he did know was that he had to stay here until his children were born. And he had to do everything in his power to make sure they were both strong and healthy. Protected and safe. Cared for, provided for. And those jobs didn’t belong solely to Maya Brand. They belonged to him. Because he was…their father. The idea made him stand a little straighter, square his shoulders, lift his chin. All of a sudden he felt…omnipotent “Going to stand outside all night or go on in?” a small voice said from behind him. Caleb turned to see the youngest Brand sister standing there staring up at him. Silvery Selene, with her huge mystical silver-blue eyes and her elfin features. She wore a red hood with a scarf attached and a black wool coat. “I’m going in,” he said. “You?” She nodded at him. “Me too. I want to talk to you.” He shrugged and led the way up the front steps and onto the glass enclosed porch that stretched the entire breadth of the house. On the large mat in front of the door he heeled off his boots, then shrugged out of his coat and hung it on a nearby hook. Selene did likewise and looked around. “This is nice, what Ida-May’s done out here,” she observed. “It’s cozy.” Despite the early darkness and chilly temperature, it was pleasant. And private. Moonlight spilled down over the quiet little town, and he thought it had an almost enchantingly picturesque appeal. He went to the small round table in the corner, pulled out a chair. “Is this good for our…talk?” “It’s fine. At least it’s warm in here. It never gets this cold for this long here. It’s bizarre. We had record rainfall this summer. I could never have imagined what winter would bring.” She came to where he was, sat down in the chair he held. Caleb took his own seat across from her. “So,” he said. She drew a breath, licked her lips. “I’m not sure how to begin.” “Well, maybe I can help. You’re about to ask me what my intentions are toward your sister.” She lowered her gaze. “That’s…not what I came for…but since you brought it up…are you at least going to stick around a while?” “At least.” Her gaze rose slowly, locked with his. “I have a confession to make, Caleb. I…I’m the one who made you come back here.” That shocked him into silence faster than almost anything could have. Not only that this innocent-looking baby of the family would resort to sending photographs that could destroy his career in unmarked envelopes, but that she would then come to him to admit it. “I think you would have come anyway. In fact, I’m almost sure of it, but I couldn’t take the chance I might be wrong. It was wrong to make you come back, I know that…and yet…I’d do it again. I’m sorry, though, if it messed up your life.” He closed his eyes, drew a breath, then opened them slowly. “That photograph could have ruined me, Selene. You could have just called me, you know. Anything a bit more discreet than—” “What photograph?” He frowned. Huge silvery eyes blinked innocently at him. “What do you mean, ‘what photograph?’ The photograph that landed on my desk yesterday—the one of your sister, her belly out to here, with the word ‘congratulations’ scrawled across the back.” Her eyes grew even wider, if that was possible. “Caleb…I don’t know anything about any photograph. I just…gosh, I mean, I didn’t think it would manifest like that! I’m sorry.” Caleb frowned, because she made no sense. He gave his head a little shake, but that didn’t help. “Selene, if you didn’t send the photo, then what did you mean when you said that you were the one who made me come back here?” She looked so guilty that he almost felt sorry for her. Chin lowering, she said, “I…performed a little…rite.” “A rite?” “A…spell.” He blinked at her. “Magic,” she said. “You know. You burn some herbs, light some candles, chant some words….” Light finally dawned. This was the tarot card sister, the New Age guru. The Aquarian of the family. “You’re not supposed to mess with people’s free will,” she went on quickly. “But I messed with yours. I just wanted to own up to it. I’ll deal with the karma. It’ll be worth it if…well…I mean…if things work out the way I’m hoping they will.” Caleb smiled. She seemed really upset about all of this. Her hands were fisted together and kneading on the table, and her teeth were worrying her lower lip every little while. He covered her hands with his. “You didn’t mess with my free will, hon. If I had known about the babies…I’d have been here long before now.” “You would?” “Of course I would. Why does that surprise you?” She blinked and seemed thoughtful for a moment. “Well…I guess because you used a false name and everything… you know, when you came here before. I assumed that was a precaution you used anytime you went out catting around, you know, to keep the women from tracking you down if there are consequences.” He sat very still for a long moment. Then he said, “And is that what your sister thinks, too, Selene?” She only shrugged. “I don’t know what she thinks. But I think she needs you, Caleb. She’s doing just fine at playing the fearless firstborn of Vidalia Brand, but deep down, she’s scared to death. About carrying those kids, about delivering them, and even more about raising them afterward.” He nodded. “She should be. But to be honest, she doesn’t seem too eager to let me be a part of any of it.” Selene’s eyes speared him, deadly serious and intense, she said, “That’s got nothing to do with you, Caleb. It’s got to do with the past, and our father, and stuff that I don’t even remember. I just know it’s in her, you know? Like a deep sliver she hasn’t been able to dig out.” She shook her head slowly. “Maybe she thought it was all healed over, but this thing with you just jammed it in deeper and started it hurting all over again.” For a moment he thought he was going to learn something real, something meaningful, about the mother of his children. He knew the story of her father. She’d told him, and he’d heard about it again from the local gossips ever since he’d come back this time. But he didn’t know how Maya felt about it—how she’d felt then, how she felt now. And it didn’t look like he would know any time soon, either. Selene bit her lip, shook her head. “That’s for Maya to talk to you about, not me. Like I said, I don’t even remember. But I do know this much. If Maya’s unwilling to let you be a part of this, you’re going to have to make her let you. You have every right to be involved in the birth of your own kids, Caleb, and you need to say so. Don’t take no for an answer.” “She might hate me for it,” he said softly. Selene shook her head. “Maybe for a while. But she needs you. Trust me.” Her hand touched his. “I know things.” Drawing a breath, straightening, she gave a nod. “And know that whatever happens will be real and that it will come from the two of you. I’m not going to interfere again.” He lifted his brows. “What, no love potions?” “You’re teasing me, aren’t you?” “No, Selene. I might, but there’s something about you that makes me wonder.” She smiled, seeming to take that as a compliment. “Well, that’s it. That’s what I came here to tell you. Good night, Caleb.” “Night,” he murmured. But he barely saw her leave. He was too busy wondering if there were secret wounds festering in Maya Brand’s heart…and how he could possibly hope to get close enough to find out. From his room that night he called Bobby, spoke to him briefly, only to learn that no further word had come in about Caleb’s impending fatherhood. No threats, no demands, no one even hinting that they knew. So if Selene hadn’t sent that photo, and Maya obviously hadn’t, then the question remained…who had? One of the other sisters? Mel or Kara? Perhaps Vidalia Brand herself? He hoped so. Because if it wasn’t one of them, then that meant someone else must know about all of this. And if someone else knew, they were holding the fuse to Caleb’s personal political powder keg. Her back ached. Her head ached. Her stretch marks itched. Her feet were swollen. Her bladder was about to burst, and, oh, hell, she had a leg cramp. “Ow, ow, ow, ow, OW!” The cramp eased. The knotted muscles in her calf relaxed. She stopped yelling and managed to get through her morning routine without serious damage. The babies were kicking so hard it actually hurt now and then, and she was so big she had to use the long-handled back brush to wash her feet, even though she’d put a waterproof stool in the shower stall. Ugh! Finally she chose one of her colorful tent-sized outfits from the selection in her closet and pulled it on over her industrial-strength bra and super-support panties. A pretty kaftan and a pair of stretchy leggings. But she just didn’t feel pretty in them. She sat at her dressing table, brushing her hair, when there was a tap on her bedroom door. “Come in,” she called, not even looking up from her brushing. The door opened, footsteps came in, falling too heavily to belong to any of the Brand women. And she glanced into the mirror to see Caleb, of all people, standing there with a tray in his hands. “What in the world are you doing here?” she asked his reflection. “Good morning, Maya. How are you feeling this morning, hm?” She eyed the tray, not answering, because she was so sick and tired of answering that same question every single day a dozen times. “What are you doing here? What is this?” “Breakfast in bed. Or…it was intended to be. Only, you’re not in bed, so I guess I’m late.” Maya set the hairbrush down and turned slowly. “Who let you in?” “Your mother. I brought enough fresh pastries for everyone, and Vidalia was kind enough to supply the coffee to go with them.” He nodded at the cup on the tray. “Decaf for you, of course.” He carried the tray in, right to the chest at the foot of her bed, and set it down. “I found this great bakery in town this morning, just a stone’s throw from the boarding house.” “Sunny’s Place. I know it.” Picking up a platter heaped with doughnuts, Danishes and muffins, he brought it to where she sat and held it under her nose. God, they smelled good. Hell, he smelled better. There was a hint of something…not cologne, it was too subtle for that Maybe it was the soap he used. Sort of a wind and water scent. It tickled a deep part of her that hadn’t been tickled in…well, in nine months, give or take a couple of weeks. “Pretty low trick, bribing your way in here with pastries, don’t you think? Why are you doing this, anyway?” she asked him suspiciously. “Because I want to. Hey, you’ve been lugging those twins around for nine months now. I figure the least I can do is help you through the last couple of weeks.” “Don’t say that!” He blinked. “Don’t say what? That I want to help you out?” “No. That ‘couple of weeks’ part. If it’s more than a couple of days, I’ll die. My belly will explode, and I will just simply die.” She sighed, grabbed a yummy-looking Danish and a napkin, took a heavenly bite and closed her eyes in ecstasy as she chewed. “Oh, this is sooo good.” “I know. I ate two myself.” He smiled at her. And he was so damned charming she couldn’t help but smile back. But then she thought about what he’d said a moment ago, about helping her through the last couple of weeks, and she tilted her head. “So does that mean you plan to hang around town until the babies come?” Licking his lips, he seemed to think very carefully about his words before he spoke. “Maya, I’d really like to. I’ve never been a father before. This is all…well, it’s special to me. Scary as hell, totally out of line with my plans…but special. I’m…I’m not the kind of guy who can just walk away from something like this…and I know you probably don’t believe that, but I think you will. If you give me a chance. Get to know me…just a little bit.” He swallowed hard. “I’d really like you to agree with me on this, but I want you to know that I’m staying, even if you don’t. I mean…I’m their father.” He looked at her belly. “I’m their father.” The second time he said it, he got a shaky, crooked little smile on his face, and his voice cracked just the slightest bit. She couldn’t argue with him when he looked like that. And he was right, she knew that. She’d been feeling guilty about her attitude toward him all night long. It wasn’t his fault she didn’t want a man in her life. “I was crabby with you last night,” she told him. “I get that way a lot lately. But it’s not my normal attitude, you know.” “I know.” She nodded. “I will not exclude you from the babies’ lives. I want to make that clear, Caleb. You’re right. You are their father, and you can be just as involved with them as you want or need to be. I promise.” He smiled broadly and blew a sigh of relief. “I’m glad to hear it.” Then he glanced down at her belly. “Still nervous as hell and reeling from all this…but glad.” The babies were kicking like crazy. She had a thought, bit her lower lip, and finally gave in to it. “Give me your hand,” she said, setting her Danish down. He did. She took his hand in hers and laid his palm on her belly, sliding it around to the spot where some little foot had been repeatedly thumping her. He met her eyes, his expectant, excited. It took a moment. But finally there was a succession of rapid and rather forceful kicks. She never looked away from his eyes when it happened. And she was glad she hadn’t because they widened; then his gaze slid down to where his hand rested, and she swore she saw moisture gather in his eyes. “My God. Oh my God,” he whispered. “You look like you’re going to faint Caleb. It’s okay. Babies are supposed to kick. It means they’re healthy.” “Are you sure?” She nodded. Caleb laughed nervously, gave his head a shake, met her eyes again. “I…it’s like it wasn’t quite real until just then.” Then he frowned. “Does it hurt when they do that?” “Oh, they give me a good jab once in a while. Enough to make me suck in a breath, maybe, but nothing drastic.” He stared at her for a long moment as if a little awed by her. But then he shook himself and went back to the tray, brought her cup of coffee. “Better drink this while it’s still warm.” “You didn’t need to do all this, Caleb.” “I wanted to, I told you.” She sipped the coffee. Finished the Danish. Grabbed a doughnut. “Your mother says you, um…have a doctor’s appointment today,” he said, speaking slowly. “Yeah. In an hour actually.” He looked at her, his blue eyes conveying a clear message. She rolled hers and sighed. “Don’t tell me you want to come along.” He nodded hard. “Only if it won’t make you too uncomfortable,” he said quickly. “When the stirrups come out, pal, you leave the room. Got it?” He shuddered. “I…think I can safely promise that much.” Turning, he went to the two cribs, checked them out, nodding in approval. “Why the mesh on the inside?” he asked. “The slats were a bit too far apart on the older models. Of course, the five of us survived them, but you can’t be too careful.” Nodding, he reached in to touch the soft blankets. “I’ve never seen a baby quilt like this before.” “That’s because I made it.” He turned toward her, his brows arched, then lifted the quilt out of the crib for a closer examination. Building blocks with letters on them, and bunnies and teddy bears, all hand stitched, in various textures and colors, littered the piece. “Wow. This is some intricate work, Maya.” Then, grinning at her, he said, “I guess my plan is working.” “What?” she asked. “To get to know you better,” he explained. “Already I’ve learned something about you. You quilt.” The sound of a throat being cleared made them both look toward the door, where Kara stood looking in at them. Her head was only a few inches below the door-frame. “She quilts, she sews, she cooks—the woman makes Martha Stewart look like an amateur.” “Oh, cut it out, Kara. I’m not auditioning for anything here.” Kara only shrugged. “Caleb,” she said, “I have a favor to ask you.” He said, “Anything at all, Kara. What do you need?” “Well, with all that’s been going on, we haven’t even got a Christmas tree up yet.” He tipped his head to one side. “Hell, I can’t even remember the last time I had a tree for Christmas.” “Really?” Kara asked. “Why not?” “I don’t know. It’s just me and my father, and I guess we….” He shook his head. “I don’t know. So, what do you need? Help getting a tree?” “Yeah. Not that we can’t do it ourselves. I mean, we do every year, but the pickup seems to be acting up this morning. It doesn’t want to start. So I thought maybe you’d volunteer yours.” “Sure. When?” “Sooner the better,” Kara said with a smile. “How about right after you two get back from the doc?” “No problem.” Caleb smiled. “Actually, I’m kind of looking forward to it.” Kara’s smile had enough wattage to light the entire town of Big Falls, Maya thought. “Hey, we should probably be going pretty soon,” Caleb said. “I’m going to go out and start the car, let it warm up.” He glanced at Maya. “I’m assuming you want to take the van, right?” “It’s the most comfortable for me.” He nodded and headed out of the room. Maya heard his feet running down the stairs. Her sister sent her an innocent look, and then turned to go. “Kara, hold it right there.” Stopping, but not turning, Kara said, “What?” in a squeaky voice. “What did you do to our pickup?” Now she did turn. She must have thought those fluttering lashes would help her cause. “What do you mean?” “You did something so it wouldn’t run, so that you could con Caleb into coming with us to get the tree. Didn’t you?” Her brows came down fast. “You have a suspicious mind!” “And you haven’t denied a thing.” Kara crossed her arms over her chest. “I like him.” Then she tipped her head to one side. “Besides, did you see his eyes light up? Did you hear what he said about not remembering the last time he bothered to celebrate Christmas with his father?” “That’s not what he said—he said he couldn’t remember the last time he got a tree,” Maya corrected. “So how do you celebrate Christmas without a tree?” Kara shook her head. “He’s lonely, Maya. I can see it.” “Yeah, well…maybe.” “Aren’t you even curious?” Behind her, Caleb said, “Curious about what?” Kara gasped and whirled on him. He only grinned, gave her a mischievous wink, and looked past her to Maya. “Your chariot awaits. But you can finish your coffee first. Give it time to warm up.” “I’ll take the coffee with me,” she said. “The sooner we get this over with, the better.” She drew a breath, preparing herself for the inevitable awkward moment when she was forced to get her bulk up out of a chair. But before she could even begin, Caleb was there. He slid one arm behind the small of her back, steadied her with the other and helped her up so easily anyone would have thought she must be tiny. She liked it and that scared her. Chapter 9 Caleb caught himself sliding into a mire of sentimentality more than once on that drive to the small redbrick prenatal clinic in Tucker Lake, fifteen miles the other side of Big Falls. It was a dangerous game he was playing out here. Getting emotionally involved with the babies…insinuating himself into the family and into Maya’s life before even knew for sure that he was the father, but hell, they were twins. He was a twin. His own father had been a twin, too. But, like Caleb’s own twin, his uncle had been stillborn. It terrified him to think of that. It also verified that these children were his. Maybe not totally, and not legally, but it was all the proof he needed. He couldn’t leave. That was obvious. He didn’t want to. Exactly what he did want was as elusive as the meaning of life on Earth. What to do next was a question he couldn’t begin to figure out. It seemed all he could do was stumble through, one step at a time. If it turned out that Maya was lying to him, then he was setting himself up for a big fall. The problem was, she wasn’t lying to him. He might be a gullible idiot, but he just…believed her. Maybe because he wanted to believe her, an even scarier thought. That worried him. They didn’t have to wait long. He was glad, because being in the waiting room surrounded by swollen-bellied women and nervous-looking men made him feel like a fraud. As if he didn’t belong. As if they could take one look at him and tell he was an outsider, not a real partner to the mother of his kid. Kids. “Come on in, Maya,” a nurse said, only moments after they had taken seats in the waiting room. Caleb helped Maya to her feet and held her arm as they were led to a small exam room. Maya seemed to know the drill by heart. She walked in, stepped on the scale, then used a small stepping stool to get up onto the exam table. She lay back, and the nurse whipped out a tape measure and peeled Maya’s blouse back and leggings downward to measure her belly. “Any problems?” the nurse asked cheerfully. Caleb stared at the swollen mound of pink flesh underneath Maya’s blouse. Her belly button was turned inside out. “None,” Maya said. “Stop staring, Caleb.” Grinning, the nurse jotted a note and proceeded to take Maya’s blood pressure, then her pulse, simultaneously shooting glances at Caleb every once in a while. Curious, pointed glances, but she didn’t ask. He didn’t know how much to say, so he said nothing at all. When she finished, she said, “The doctor will be in soon,” and headed out the door. Maya remained lying down on the exam table, although she did rearrange her blouse. He assumed it was probably too much effort to get up. Caleb paced and looked around the room. Baby scales, baby pictures on the wall. A chart denoting the phases of labor, which he found himself studying intently. “Sit down,” Maya said. “You’re making me nervous.” He sent her a sheepish grin and sat down, but the moment his buttocks touched the chair, the door opened, so he shot back up again. The doctor came in. Fortyish, red-headed and female. There were silver frames on her oval glasses and a ready smile on her lips. “Maya! How are those babies doing this week, hmm?” “Kicking up a storm, Dr. Sheila,” Maya said. “That’s the way we like ‘em.” She turned to Caleb, offered a hand. “I’m Sheila Stone, Maya’s ob-gyn,” she said. “Good to meet you, Doctor. I’m Caleb…er….Cain.” Maya shot him a look he couldn’t read. “I’m…uh…I’m the…” “Father?” she asked. He nodded, not waiting for Maya’s permission. “Well, congratulations. I’m glad to see you’re here for the blessed event.” She pulled her stethoscope to her ears, leaned over and moved it around until she found the spots she wanted. “Doctor, is it normal for the babies to kick so much? I mean, they’re really…active in there.” He saw Maya’s curious gaze on his when he asked the question. She had eyes that could hold a thousand emotions, he thought, and he wished he could read every one of them. But they tended to bubble up and swirl and sink again in such rapid succession and unlikely combinations that he thought he never would. He would glimpse something, some glimmer, but it would be replaced by another before he could get a handle on it “It’s perfectly normal, Caleb,” the doctor was saying as he plumbed the depths of Maya Brand’s eyes. “It means they’re strong and healthy.” Again she leaned over, listening to Maya’s belly, and he dragged his eyes away from the depths of the mother to observe the doctor for signs of dishonesty or worry or anything telling at all. “But…is it safe for them to be so active? I mean…with two babies…it is possible they could…you know, hurt each other?” “Oh…they may poke each other a bit now and then,” Dr. Stone said. “But they’re very well protected, Caleb. Completely surrounded and cushioned by amniotic fluid. And while those kicks may seem pretty solid to us out here, the babies aren’t strong enough to seriously harm each other. Really, with the quality of prenatal care we have today, twins are barely any more concern to us than single birth babies.” She might be lying to him, he thought. Perhaps because Maya was in the room. Oh, he wanted to believe her. But he knew better, didn’t he? He’d been told all his life how the stronger twins in his bloodline managed to survive at the expense of their weaker siblings. “You look worried, Dad,” Dr. Stone said. “Come here, let me reassure you.” She motioned at Caleb to come closer. When he did, she snagged a second stethoscope from her pocket and handed it to him. He took it, his hand shaking, and put it on. Then the doctor guided the other end to the right spot. And he heard it. Rapid as the beat of a hummingbird’s wings—a tiny, powerful patter. “Holy…my God, is that the baby’s heart?” “It sure is. Here, here’s the other one,” she said, moving the business end of the thing yet again. Caleb closed his eyes as he heard the second beat, every bit as strong and steady as the first. “Are they supposed to be that fast?” he asked, eyes closed as he listened. “They’re just right,” Dr. Stone assured him. When he opened his eyes again, they were slightly blurry, and Maya’s were staring right into them. Probing and seeking and surprised and a dozen other things. “It’s amazing,” he said. “I…I don’t even know what to say.” “So are you planning to be in the delivery room, Caleb?” He blinked and felt his eyes widen as they shot to the doctor’s. Maya smiled. “Don’t panic, Caleb. No one expects you to do that.” “But…but….” “Well, you’ve got time to think about that. But for now, it’s time for the internal, and you need to wait outside.” “Okay. Okay, sure.” He reached up and gave Maya’s hand a squeeze before he left. Then he met her eyes, held them for a long moment, and without even knowing he was going to, he leaned down and kissed her very softly. Then he straightened, realized what he’d done and wondered why. It had just seemed…like the thing to do. “I’ll…be right out there…if you need me.” She stared at him as if too stunned to speak, and he turned and fled. In the waiting room, he paced. Hell, he didn’t like this. He didn’t like believing her without question, and he liked even less that he knew right to his toes that he was right to believe her. She wouldn’t lie to him. She wasn’t up to anything. She didn’t even want him around, much less want his money, and even if she did, she wouldn’t have to resort to scamming to get her hands on it. She could just ask. He would give it to her. All of it. He would give her everything he had, if she wanted it. She was carrying two babies, and they were both his. His children. His babies. He wanted to be there when they were born. In the delivery room, right there. She was incredible…that she could do this thing, perform this miracle, give life to his offspring. It was mind-boggling to him. Minutes ticked by. He spent the time pawing through the pamphlets, of which there seemed to be hundreds. He flipped through all of them, took several. Then added a couple of parenting and natural childbirth magazines to his collection. Finally the door opened, and the doctor called him back in. “It’s not going to be long,” she said. “I don’t think you’ll go another week, Maya.” “Thank God. I don’t think I can take another week.” Maya grimaced at the doctor as she got herself up into a sitting position on the table. “We’re going to want a paternity test done as soon as they’re born. Dr. Sheila,” Maya said. The doctor lifted her brows. “Sure. But I can already tell you their blood types. Not that it would prove you are the father, Caleb, but it could eliminate you.” Caleb shook his head. “I don’t need that. I don’t need—” “I want it settled,” Maya told him. “I believe you, Maya. You don’t have to prove anything to me.” She lowered her head, keeping her gaze from his. He couldn’t even try to read her eyes. She said, “That…means a lot to me, that you’d say that, Caleb. Thank you.” “No. Thank you.” Lifting her head, meeting his eyes, she drew a breath. “Caleb, you’re…who you are. The question of paternity is going to come up, sooner or later—someone’s going to want proof. Maybe it won’t be you. But it’s going to happen. So I’d just as soon we get this done right away.” He thought about what she’d said, realized she was right. It would come up eventually. “All right. Okay, you’re probably right.” The doctor flipped open the charts without so much as shooting Caleb a curious glance. He liked her. She was a pro. “Well, according to the amnio, the babies are both type O-negative. That doesn’t match Maya, so it has to match the father. Do you know your blood type, Caleb?’’ He lifted his head slowly. “Yeah. It’s O-negative. And it’s not a common blood type.” He turned to face Maya. “I’d like…very much…to be in that delivery room with you, Maya. If you think you wouldn’t mind too much.” Frowning until her brows touched, she sighed. “I…don’t know.” Dr. Stone eyed them both. “When you make a decision, let us know, okay? The hospital needs to be forewarned.” “Thanks, we will.” Caleb watched the doctor go and turned back to Maya. “I didn’t mean to put any pressure on you. I mean…if it would make you uncomfortable, then—” “We have a tree to cut down,” Maya said. She started to slide off the table. Caleb reached for her, picked her up and gently lowered her to the floor. Their eyes locked as he did, and Maya’s cheeks went pink. Then he grabbed her coat and held it for her. But she shook her head slowly and glanced down. He looked, too, and saw that she was standing there in her socks. Her warm suede shoes stood nearby. She, too, looked at the shoes. Then at him. Then at the shoes again. She kicked them closer to the chair where he’d been sitting earlier, then sat down and, biting her lip as if preparing to face some great challenge, bent to reach for the shoes. Caleb got there first. “Let me do that.” “I can put on my own shoes.” “Lean back in the chair, Maya. You bend over any further and my kids are going to be born with no necks. You’re squishing them.” “I am not.” But she did lean back. Caleb knelt down. He grabbed a shoe, then slid it gently onto a socked foot. He pulled the laces snugly and tied them up. “Just like Cinderella,” he quipped, picking up the other shoe. “Yeah, but those aren’t exactly delicate glass slippers.” He shrugged. “Yeah, well, Cindy didn’t have to carry her coach-sized pumpkin around with her. It carried her, as I recall.” He slid the other shoe on, tied it and got to his feet. “Last week I could reach,” she said. “Maybe next week you’ll be able to reach again.” She closed her eyes fast, turning her head slightly. But not before he saw what flashed through her expression. “Hey,” he said. “It’s okay to be nervous about this. Hell, I’m nervous and I don’t have to do anything.” She didn’t say anything. He caught her chin, tipped it up. “Are you? Nervous?” For a long moment she stared into his eyes, and then she said, “I’m scared to death, Caleb.” Her hands went to her belly. “I mean, what if I can’t do it? One baby is hard enough. I went to the hospital one day just to check out the maternity ward. And I heard some woman screaming in the delivery room. It sounded like a Halloween horror movie on high volume. I thought she was being murdered in there.” He swallowed hard. “Did you talk to your mother about it? I mean, she’s been through it so many times.” Maya lowered her head. “I don’t want her to know how scared I am. Mom’s…she’s the strongest woman I’ve ever met. She thinks I’m like her.” “I think you are, too.” She shook her head. “I can’t tell her I’m terrified of something as natural as giving birth. She’d be….” “Disappointed?” Maya nodded. “Don’t you think she was afraid the first time? Hell, I’ll bet she was afraid every time, Maya. But your dad was there with her, right? And maybe that made it easier.” Maya sighed. “No. Dad wasn’t there for her at all. Not for any of us. Mom…she gave birth five times, all by herself. Daddy…well, his job kept him traveling a lot. Or…that’s what we all thought at the time.” Frowning as he helped her to her feet, Caleb asked, “But…it wasn’t really his job that kept him away, was it, Maya? It was…his other family.” “Yeah,” she said, smoothing her blouse, turning her back to him and shrugging into her coat with his help. He waited, but she said no more. “Will you tell me about it sometime?” he finally asked. She shrugged. “I already told you about it, that night at the bar.” “You told me the facts. Not how it affected you or your mother or your sisters. I’d like to hear how you felt about it, when it all came out. How you feel about it now.” She shook her head. “It’s irrelevant. It’s in the past.” “Then will you tell me?” She gave a shrug. “Maybe.” He nodded slowly, taking her elbow, steering her out the door, through the waiting room and into the parking lot where her van waited. He opened her door for her, helped her get in, then went to the driver’s side. After he started the engine he sat there for a minute. Then he said, “Tell me this much. What happened between your dad and your mom—is that why you don’t trust men very much?” “Who said I didn’t trust men?” He shrugged. “No one. No one had to, Maya. You’ve been suspicious of my every move, word and deed since I showed up here.” “Well, who wouldn’t be?” She shook her head. “But for the record, it’s not that I don’t trust men. It’s that I don’t want to get hurt like my mother did—but, uh, by the looks of things, I didn’t miss it by much. I mean, you didn’t break my heart, but I sure as hell did end up with a pair of babies and no husband around.” He licked his lips and told himself not to blurt the words he blurted next. “That could be remedied, Maya.” Her eyes got wider than the rings around Saturn, and she stared at him as if he’d lost his mind. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” “No. No, I wasn’t, as a matter of fact.” Starting the van, he drove it into the road, and carefully back toward Big Falls. She was still staring at him. He could feel her eyes on him, huge and probing. “You’re out of your mind, Caleb. My God, I wouldn’t even consider marrying you!” The barb sank deep. He felt it clear to his bones. “Why not? I mean it’s not like I’m the flat-busted drifter you thought I was before. I could give you anything, Maya. Everything.” Not one word came from her lips, and when he turned to ask why, the look in her eyes almost toasted him to a nice golden brown hue. “How dare you?” she whispered. He shrugged. “How dare I what?” “Try to buy me! My God, do you really think I give a damn how much money you have or don’t have? I wouldn’t consider marrying you for one reason, and one reason only, Caleb Montgomery! I don’t love you. I don’t even know you.” “And what if you did?” Her brows bent low, and her eyes burned him. “What if I did what? Know you? Or love you?” “Both. What then?” She lowered her head, her cheeks burning red. “This is ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous conversation, Caleb. Because it’s irrelevant. But the fact of the matter is, if I was in love with a man—any man—it wouldn’t matter to me how much money he had, or what kind of truck he drove, or what he did for a living.” He searched her face, looking for the lie, but seeing no sign of it. “The only thing that would matter,” she went on, so earnestly it was difficult to imagine she might be making it up as she went along, “would be how he treated me and the babies, and whether he…felt the same way. I’ll never be one of those women tied to a man who doesn’t love her. I’ve seen them—the political wives, the trophy wives, the ones who married because they fit the profile their husbands were looking for, and vice-versa.” He stared at her for so long he almost veered off the road. Then he looked straight ahead again. Snowflakes, huge and soft as balls of cotton fluff, came floating a few at a time from the sky. Snowflakes, in Oklahoma. “You’re right,” he said finally. “I know I am.” He glanced sideways at her. “I had a profile, you know. Just before I left that night when we first met, my father and his advisers had been filling me in on the woman I was going to have to find and marry. Or should, if I wanted to win the senate race.” Blinking slowly, she turned to look back at him. “And I’ll bet I missed on every point,” she said. “Go on, tell me the kind of woman you were looking for. Let’s see, I imagine she should have at least been college educated, which I’m not. Probably her mother should not own a saloon, and I daresay her father being a bigamist wasn’t on the list. I don’t imagine being pregnant and unmarried showed up anywhere, either.” He tilted his head to one side. “I left that night because I didn’t want to be tied to the woman who would fit their profile. And you’re right—you would have missed it by a mile on one point in particular.” “What’s that? ‘Must have class and breeding’?” “No. It was item number seven, if I recall correctly. ‘She must be pretty, but not too pretty.’” He tried a charming smile on her. “You’re way too pretty.” She averted her face quickly, stared outside, but her cheeks went pink. “I’d have missed on a dozen points,” Maya said softly, her voice raspy. Then she shrugged. “But you already know I’m not up to your family standards, don’t you? Isn’t that why you lied about your name to Dr. Stone?” He stepped on the brake, stopping the van dead center in the middle of the deserted, snowy road. “Is that what you think?” She didn’t look at him, so he gripped her shoulders and turned her until she did. “Maya, I lied about my name to protect you and the babies and the rest of your family.” This time the message in her eyes was clear. Doubt. Skepticism. She didn’t believe a word he said. “Protect us from what?” “From public humiliation. Scandal. The press. A story like this gets out, Maya, and this town will become a circus. You wouldn’t have a moment’s peace, and what’s left of your reputation would be in shambles.” She tilted her head to one side. “And so would yours.” With a sigh, he nodded. “Yes. So would mine. But that’s not what I was thinking about when I gave the doctor a false name.” “And what about the last time—when you lied about your name to me? Was that to protect me, too?” He swallowed hard, looking away. “I had reasons. They had nothing to do with you, Maya, I just…I was running away from who I was that night.” “That’s convenient.” He lowered his chin, shook his head and put the van back into gear again. “I’m telling the truth,” he said as he drove. “You’re the one who’s lying now.” “Me?” She shot him a surprised look. “What have I lied about?” “When you said you don’t have any problem trusting men.” She looked away. She needn’t have bothered. It wasn’t as if he had a snowball’s chance in hell of reading whatever flashed into her eyes. An hour later they pulled in at the house, and Maya reached over to blow the horn. Within minutes several bundled-up women came scrambling out the front door. One was carrying a small chainsaw. Mel, of course. She tossed it in the back of Caleb’s pickup, then came to the driver’s door of the van, tapped on the window. Caleb rolled it down. “Where do you think you are, Caleb? New York City?” she asked him. “Huh?” “Keys,” Mel told him, holding out a hand, palm up. “You’ve got that thing locked up tighter than Fort Knox.” “Oh. Right.” He dug in his pocket, fished out the pickup keys and handed them to her. “It’s not that I think anyone’s going to steal that heap,” he told her. “Just habit.” “Oh, yeah? I suppose it would be, for a guy used to tooling around in a Mercedes.” Mel wore a blue knit hat with a fuzzy ball on top over her short dark hair. Her bangs stuck out from under it and a couple of snowflakes had landed in them and clung like glittering ornaments. “Lexus coupe,” he told her. “It’s less pretentious.” “Oh, yeah, right. That’s downright slumming.” But she said it with a smile. “So you may as well drive the van over. I’ll take Mom with me in your truck; That is, if you trust me with your wheels.” Already the side door of the van was sliding open, and Selene and Kara were clambering into their seats, snapping their belts. “Sure I trust you,” he told her. “You should,” Mel said. “I figure any collisions I might have can only improve the looks of that thing, anyway.” She sent him a wink and turned away. “Hey, I saw yours in the barn, Mel. Makes mine look like a luxury car,” he called. Mel stopped, turned and eyed him. “And, I might add, mine runs.” She grinned and sent him a mock salute, then walked away. As he rolled his window up, he heard Vidalia say, “I told you he’d loosen up once he got to know us.” In the back seat, Kara and Selene were still laughing at his exchange with Mel. As he put the van into motion, Kara said, “Can you believe it’s snowing! It’s perfect that it’s snowing on tree day, don’t you think?’’ “Oh, yes,” Selene said, sobering. “Snow is a great backdrop for murdering a tree.” “Oh, gee, here we go….” Maya muttered. “Oh, come on, Selene!” Kara cried. “Don’t spoil it for us!” “I can’t help the way I feel! I just don’t think it’s nice to chop down millions of living trees every year just for our own selfish pleasure. Hell, we only throw it out a few weeks later!” “It’s not like we’re chopping down wild trees, Selene,” Kara argued. “These trees wouldn’t exist without the custom! For Pete’s sake, they are planted and raised just for this purpose! Selling them helps farmers make ends meet. You’re so narrow-minded!” “I am not. Life is life. Trees have spirit, and I don’t see the sense in murdering them.” “Dammit, you two, enough!” Maya shouted. They went silent as she glared at them over the seat. “We are going to be joyful and filled with Christmas spirit while we choose our tree, do you understand?’’ She practically growled the words through clenched teeth. “Now stop fighting and be joyful, or I’ll come back there and make you sorry!” Caleb looked at the two pouting faces in the rearview mirror, then at Maya’s angry one beside him. He cleared his throat and very softly said, “Can I…make a suggestion?” All three sets of eyes turned on him. He swallowed hard. “The ground’s not frozen yet. It wouldn’t be all that hard to dig the tree up, instead of cutting it down. We could wrap the roots in burlap and soil, put it into a big tub of dirt, feed and water it all winter. Then, come spring, we can take it out and plant it again.” Selene’s pout eased into a smile so soft and genuine that Caleb thought she might lean up and kiss him. She looked at Kara, and Kara smiled back and nodded. Then he looked at Maya. But she wasn’t reacting at all to his suggestion. Instead she said, “What do you mean ‘we’?” “Huh?” “You said we could take the tree out and plant it in the spring. I want to know what you meant by that.” “I…well, hell, I don’t know.” “Do you plan to be here in the spring, Caleb?” She said it as if she were issuing a challenge. He decided to rise to it. “Are you and my children going to be here in the spring?” he asked her. “Well, of course we are.” “Then…then so am I.” He didn’t know what the hell made him blurt those words. Had he lost his freaking mind? “Hot damn,” Kara said from the back seat. “You go, Caleb!” “Shut up, Kara,” Maya growled. Caleb glanced at Kara in the mirror and sent her a wink. She smiled, and her eyes sparkled. He shifted his gaze to Selene, whose eyes were knowing, wise beyond their years. She gave him a very slight nod of approval, but the look she sent him said she had known it all along. Caleb was worried. He’d said something he had no intention of saying. He had no idea if he could be around here in the spring. He would visit, of course, but that wasn’t the way his statement had sounded. And now it was said. It was out there. And he couldn’t take it back. Chapter 10 The truck and the van were parked side by side in the tree farm’s driveway, and Maya was following the farmer up a hill, surrounded by her sisters, her mother and Caleb Montgomery. She didn’t know why he’d said what he had. That he would be here in the spring. He couldn’t have meant it. He couldn’t have. She wouldn’t believe him. After all, he’d told her one night, eight and a half months ago, that he would still be here in the morning. But in the morning, he’d been gone. He hadn’t so much as mentioned that to her or offered an apology, much less an explanation. And she would be damned if she would stoop low enough to ask for either of those things. Far be it from Maya Brand to let a man think his presence or absence mattered that much to her. It didn’t. And it wouldn’t. Not now, not ever. She remembered the nights of her childhood…the soft sounds of her beautiful mother crying alone in her room. She’d felt her mother’s heartache as if it were her own, no matter how Vidalia had tried to hide it from her. No. She wasn’t going to let any man hurt her like that. And she would die before she’d subject her children to that kind of pain. Besides, he couldn’t very well run for the U.S. Senate from Big Falls, Oklahoma. He couldn’t serve from here if he won. He was lying. Just plain lying. And all this concern for her, for the babies, all this pampering and coddling and chivalry—putting on her shoes, for God’s sake—it was just an act. Joking with her sisters, respecting her mother. It was false. She didn’t know what the hell he wanted from her—maybe just to win her over so he could then convince her to keep quiet about his illegitimate babies. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. She wasn’t falling for it. He wouldn’t be here when the chips were down, when she really needed him. He wouldn’t, because in her experience, men never were. A twinge of pressure tightened around her belly and made her lower back howl in protest. She stopped walking, her hiking shoes ankle deep in the snow. Beside her, sharp as a tack and twice as irritating, Caleb grabbed her arm. “Maya? You okay?” She blinked slowly, took a breath, and took stock. Nothing. “Fine,” she said. “Just a twinge. Not the least bit uncommon.” They were twenty feet from the van, and there were twenty more to go, up the side of a steep little hillock, to the field of perfectly shaped little trees. And in spite of herself, Maya sniffed the Christmassy scent of them, and felt her spirits rise. “Smells good, doesn’t it?” Caleb asked. “Smells like a memory in the making,” she said, not knowing why. Her mother was always saying things like that. But not her. It was a sappy, sentimental thing to say. She turned to look at Caleb, at the wisps of snow falling on his shoulders and dusting his hair. He was staring into her eyes and looking confused, maybe a little emotional. Hell, it was that time of year. Everyone was emotional. “A memory in the making,” he repeated. “I’ve never heard that before.” She gave her head a shake. “Maybe I’ll go back to the truck. Sit this one out.” “Now what kind of a memory would that be?” He moved closer, brushed the snow from her hair. “Come on, before they pick a tree without us.” Without warning, he scooped her into his arms, right off her feet, and started up the hill with her. “Caleb! You’re out of your mind! Put me down!” “No way.” “I weigh a ton! You’ll kill yourself.” “Hey, there are three of you here! And you’ve been carrying these two kids of ours around for nine months. I think I can handle it for a minute or two.” Ours. She didn’t like the way the word sounded on his lips, or on the air, and she liked even less the way her tummy tightened in response to the sound of it. They reached the top of the hill and the tree lot. Caleb stopped trudging, but he didn’t put her down. She was looking ahead at her sisters, running around like excited children from tree to tree, examining them from all angles. But now she drew her gaze in, turned it upward and focused it instead on the man who held her as if she was not the size of a small hippo. He wasn’t even out of breath. And he was looking at her like…like… “You’re beautiful, you know that?” he said. She lowered her lashes. “Stop.” “You are. Snowflakes on your lashes. Cheeks all pink and glowing. But it’s more than that. I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s different…but it’s not something I can name. It’s something from inside.” “It’s a pair of somethings from inside,” she told him. He smiled at her. Then he leaned down and he kissed her. Long, slowly, tenderly. His mouth was warm, and he tasted so good she wanted to kiss him forever. Yet the kiss terrified her, partly because she wanted it so very badly. And then he lifted his head away. She blinked rapidly, because there was moisture in her eyes, and she stared at him. “Put me down.” “What do you want for Christmas, Maya?” She looked away fast when he said that. Because images of her childish wishes and dreams popped into her mind. A rambling log cabin. A dog to lie by the fireplace. A cat to sit in the window. Her own kitchen to fill with the smells of baking bread and Christmas cookies. Her children’s wide sparkling eyes as they watched for Santa’s reindeer on magical Christmas Eves. And a loving, devoted husband coming through the front door, his arms filled with presents for the kids. His eyes filled with love for them—for her. “Maya?” he asked. She cleared her throat. “Let’s go get a tree before we start worrying about what to put underneath it.” He set her down on her feet, and she trudged forward. An hour later, a huge tree with roots enough to fill the entire back of Caleb’s pickup was on its way to the Brand place. It was wrapped in burlap, and a half acre of the tree farm seemed to be coming with it. It had taken all that time for Caleb, Mel and Ben Kellogg, the farmer, to dig it up. And once they removed it, they had to fill in the hole and smooth things out as best they could. The farmer charged extra for the privilege of digging up a living tree. Caleb insisted on paying, since it was his idea. It took a giant washtub to hold the thing. But Maya watched Selene’s eyes light up when they finally got the tree home and standing upright in the living room. Her small hands were black with soil and her hair full of pine needles. She’d been underneath the tree, smoothing the soil they’d added to the tub, pouring in water and tree food, holding the base as they straightened it and tied it off to keep it in place. And talking to it as if speaking to a puppy. The tree’s lush branches completely hid the baling twine they’d used to support it, thank goodness. Maya stood back and looked at it, shook her head at the dirt all over Mel and Caleb and the living room floor. “My, my, but that’s the nicest tree we’ve ever had,” Vidalia said, shaking her head in awe. “You say that every year, Mom,” Maya told her. “And every year it’s the truth. We just keep topping ourselves.” She smiled. “Well go on, now, Caleb, Mel, Selene, get washed up. Dinner’s in an hour, and there’s plenty to do before that. We’ll need all hands on deck for hauling out the decorations. Lord knows we’re already late getting them up.” She clapped her hands twice. Maya looked at Caleb, closed her eyes. “That’s my mother’s way of inviting you to stay for dinner.” He smiled at her. “I figured that out. But I’d feel better if you were the one issuing the invitation.” “Would you really?” He nodded. And he looked at her with those big eyes of his, like a puppy dog. She felt something soften inside her. In spite of herself, she heard herself asking, “Would you like to stay for dinner, Caleb?” His smile was fast and blinding. “Oh, yeah.” She rolled her eyes as he raced off to the bathroom to scrub his hands like an excited youngster. Vidalia came close to her, slid a protective arm around her shoulders. “He seems like a decent man,” she said. “Yes. He does, doesn’t he?” “He’s your soul mate, Maya,” Selene whispered from nearby. “Hell, Selene, you just like him because he didn’t support the annual tree slaughter.” Selene shook her head slowly, coming closer, slipping her arm around Maya on the other side. “I do like that about him. But, if you recall, I told you he was your soul mate that night a long time ago, in the saloon, when you first met him.” Maya frowned and turned to the side. “She did,” Kara said, coming from the kitchen. “I remember she told me the same thing.” She sidled up to her mother, slung an arm around her. So there were four now in the link. “What made you think it?” Maya asked. “Something in his eyes…and in yours. Plus I pulled a tarot card from my deck when I first noticed the sparks between you two. The Lovers.” “You know I don’t approve of those cards, Selene,” Vidalia said. “Not now, Mom, please. Come on, it’s Christmas.” Vidalia looked sideways at her, and her frown eased. She smiled and began to hum a carol, and in a few bars she began to sing the words, and they all joined in. At some point Caleb and Mel reappeared, and Mel slung an arm around Caleb’s shoulders, dragged him to the tree and linked with the others. They both joined in the singing. The timer bell from the oven pinged, and Vidalia stepped out of the arms of her children, dabbed at her eyes, and turned to hurry into the kitchen, muttering, “Lord, it’s almost perfect.” When she was out of sight, Caleb sent Maya a questioning glance. “Almost?” he asked. She nodded. “There’s one more of us,” she said. “I told you about her before, didn’t I? Edie. Mom misses her most around the holidays.” “We all do,” Selene said, eyelids lowered. “She doesn’t come home for Christmas?” Caleb asked. Maya shook her head. “She and Mom aren’t on…the best of terms.” “Not even speaking, you mean,” Mel filled in. They had broken ranks and were drifting toward chairs, the sofa. Kara bent to paw through a box of ornaments Vidalia had brought down from the attic. “But why?” Caleb asked. Maya had settled into the corner of the sofa, and she noticed that he didn’t hesitate to take the spot beside her. Awfully sure of himself, wasn’t he? Mel said, “Edie ran off to the West Coast with stars in her eyes, Caleb. But when she got there, she found a thousand other girls just as pretty and just as bright with the same dreams. Her biggest break to date was landing a gig as a model for Vanessa’s Whisper.” His eyes widened just a bit. “Vanessa’s Whisper?” he asked. And when Mel nodded, he said, “Wow, I had no idea. Maya told me she modeled lingerie, but I didn’t realize she was that famous. Why didn’t anyone say anything sooner?” Maya blinked at him. “You think we go around advertising it?” “Hell, if it was my sister I’d erect a monument in the middle of town to her success.” “Success, Caleb? My sister poses in her underwear. And the closest thing to a monument to her in this town is Wade Armstrong’s body shop, where my sister’s photos, clipped from the pages of the catalogue, are the basic wallpaper pattern.” Caleb’s brows came together. “Vanessa’s Whisper is big time, Maya. Your sister had to have competed against hundreds of models to land a contract with them. Do you know how many actresses got their starts as models? This is a big deal.” “That’s what I keep trying to tell them,” Selene said. “Edie’s gorgeous, and the beauty of the female form is nothing to be ashamed of.” “Nor is it something to spread naked on the walls of body shops for dirty minded men to drool over,” Maya said primly. “She doesn’t pose nude, Maya, and you know it,” Mel put in. Kara looked up. “I don’t care what she does. I think you and Mom have been too hard on her, and I just want her to come home.” Maya lifted her brows in disbelief, then slid a glance toward Caleb. “And you agree with her?” “Well…yeah, frankly, I do. I think you ought to be congratulating your sister, not condemning her.” Maya thinned her lips. “And how would you feel if it was your daughter posing in an eye patch and a rubber band, airbrushed, glossed over and sent to thousands of pairs of horny eyes all over the country?” He blinked, and she knew she had nailed him on that score. “I…hadn’t thought of it that way.” “Well, maybe you should.” “Shssh! Mom’s coming,” Kara said. “Dinner in a half hour,” Vidalia said, smiling. “Then we’ll decorate this tree.” Maya lifted her brows and parted her lips to protest. It was bad enough her family had conspired to get Caleb to escort her to the doctor, then dragged him into their family tree expedition. And invited him to dinner. But to invite him to actually help decorate the tree was going just a bit too far. “I’d be intruding, Vidalia. That’s…that’s a family thing. I’ve already been hanging around here too long.” He looked almost sad to have to say so. “Bullcookies!” Vidalia said. “Are you the father of my grandbabies or aren’t you?” “He’s not gonna answer that one until after the DNA tests, Mom,” Maya said softly. That earned her a sidelong scowl from Caleb. “I am,” he said to Vidalia. “Though the idea of you being a grandmother is almost as stunning to me as that of me being a father.” Vidalia smiled and sent him a wink. “That makes you family. Period.” Then she leaned closer to him and said, “That doesn’t mean you need to ease up on the efforts to flatter your way into my good graces, however.” “I wasn’t planning to.” His smile came slowly. First one side of his mouth pulled upward, and then the other. “It’s been a long time since anyone’s called me family, Vidalia,” he said. All humble and sweet looking. The big phony. “Thank you.” Vidalia looked as if she was going to melt right into a puddle of pudding at his feet. And as Maya glanced around at her sisters, she saw that he’d wrapped them all around his fingers, as well. Even Mel looked at him without snarling. Hell. “You okay?” She frowned and saw that the man of the hour was addressing her, still sitting beside her on the sofa. “My feet are swollen and my back aches and I have cramps in my calves that would down a bull moose.” He smiled softly and lifted her feet up off the floor, draping her legs across his lap and proceeding to rub her calves with his big hands. As he massaged the cramps away, she released a breath. “Go on, relax. You know you want to,” he said. “Lean back. Breathe, for crying out loud.” “I am breathing.” But she did lean back and let go. Hell, it felt great, what he was doing. She was only human. “Sheesh, when did that start?” Kara asked from across the room. She stood with curtains parted, staring out the window. The snow was falling harder than before. The gently floating fluff of earlier in the day was now slanting downward at an alarming rate. “I’d heard we might actually get an inch or two tonight,” Vidalia called from the kitchen. “Certainly is gonna be a holiday to remember around here. Come on, Kara, Mel, Selene, you three get upstairs and start bringing down the ornaments and lights, while I set the table.” She glanced in at Maya, then Caleb. “You two stay right where you are,” she added with a wink. “I’ve been trying to get that girl to lie down and relax for days but she’s been just like a jitterbug on a hot plate lately….” Her brows rose, and she tipped her head to one side. “They used to say it was a sign the time was near, when a woman takes to acting all nervous and jittery like that.” “We can only hope,” Maya groaned, letting her eyes fall closed. It was nine o’clock by the time he headed back to the boarding house. In a small town like Big Falls, that seemed like midnight. The town only had a handful of streetlights, and those were dim. But it was enchanting, all the same: the moon straining to shine through the thick night clouds, giant snowflakes falling like an invasion of tiny paratroopers. A rarity, snow in Oklahoma. He stomped the white stuff off his boots, then crossed the closed-in porch area and heeled them off. He carried them inside—then stood still as the man in the living room rose from the chair where he’d been sitting, apparently having tea with Mrs. Peabody, and turned to smile at him. Caleb almost cursed aloud. Jace Chapin was grinning like a Cheshire cat. “Well now,” Caleb said slowly, wishing to God he could make the man disappear. “What’s the world’s sleaziest tabloid reporter doing way out here in Big Falls?” “Came to find out what the richest candidate for the U.S. Senate is doing way out here in Big Falls,” Jace replied. “I haven’t declared my candidacy, Chapin. But getting the facts straight has never been your strong suit.” The man shrugged and pursed his lips. “Oh, but the facts this time are too good to resist,” he said. “I mean, the background on this unmarried pregnant woman you’ve been running around with is better than anything I could have invented, I gotta tell you.” Caleb tried to look unconcerned, but he kept his eyes averted as he walked past the man, stood near the fireplace, set his boots down. “You’re going to have to explain to me why the background story on a friend of mine would be of any interest to your readers, Jace. Because, frankly, I’m clueless.” “Oh, come on, Montgomery. It’s your kid. I have photos of you escorting this woman into the clinic in the next town. Having dinner with her. Carrying her up a snowy hill to pick a Christmas tree.” “That’s quite a leap of the imagination, even for you. From dinner to fatherhood.” He shrugged. “I’ve got more. Just wanted to give you a chance to comment before the story runs in tomorrow’s edition.” “Run this story, Jace, and I promise, I’ll bury you.” Jace’s brows lifted. “And what will you do for me if I don’t run it, Montgomery?” Caleb narrowed his eyes on the man, finally reading him. “You’re slime, you know that, Jace? How much do you want?” He shrugged. “Five hundred grand…for now.” “Fine.” “Fine? You mean you’ll pay it?” Caleb had his hand on his cell phone already. “Just tell me where to transfer the funds and I’ll call—” A click made him stop speaking. Jace had one hand in his pocket, and he pulled out a minirecorder. “That’s all I need, Montgomery. If this wasn’t your kid, you wouldn’t be so desperate to keep it quiet. I can name my price for this story.” Caleb reached for the little weasel, but he ducked and ran for the door. Caleb ran after him, only to stop at the porch, sock feet already damp, as he saw the man slam his car door, and lurch into the narrow street. “Son of a—” “Oh, my. Oh, dear. Oh, my, what are you going to do? Poor Maya! Poor, poor Maya. That dear girl…” Ida-May Peabody wrung her hands and paced behind him. “I had no idea! I should never have let that man in here. Oh, my.” “Now, Ms. Peabody, you know this isn’t your fault. You had no way of knowing,” Caleb assured her. She didn’t look too relieved. He had to get to his room, call Bobby, see what could be done about damage control. And then…then he had to warn Maya. Damn, as if she didn’t already dislike him enough. “He’d make a real nice addition to this family, you know,” Vidalia Brand said softly. She and Maya were sitting in front of the fireplace. Maya had her feet up. Her backache had been growing steadily worse all day, and now it was really hurting. The dishes were done, and her sisters had all gone to bed. The tree twinkled magically. “He will be a part of the family,” she told her mother. “As the babies’ father, he’ll be as much a part of it as he wants to be.” “Looks to me like he wants to be even more than that.” “Mom, please….” Vidalia shrugged, sighed a surrender. “Not easy, you know. Raising a family alone.” Looking up, Maya saw her mother’s eyes. The lines at the corners, the hard-worn contours. “You are a hell of a woman, Mamma. Did I ever tell you how much I admire you? No, really. I mean it. You did fine by us. No man could have done better. And I know it was hard. Probably the hardest thing you ever did in your life, raising us alone.” “No, child. The hardest thing I ever did was saying goodbye to the man I loved.’’ Maya closed her eyes, lowered her head. Her father had been a two-timing slime bag. But damn, her mother’s loyalty ran deep. “I think that man could love you, girl.” Lifting her head, she met her mother’s eyes. “I don’t want him to. I don’t want to—” “To believe in him? I know. You’re afraid he’ll let you down, break your heart, the way your father did to me.” “I don’t want to talk about it,” she corrected. “It was worth it, Maya. Being with him meant having all you girls. And that was worth the hurting. Worth anything. And just because you admire me for having survived the raising of a family without the help of a man, doesn’t mean you should wish it for yourself, because it’s no kind of rose garden.” Reaching out, Maya covered her mother’s hand with her own. “There’s a difference, Mamma. You had nobody. I have you. And Kara and Selene and Mel.” “And Caleb,” her mother insisted stubbornly. “No. The babies will have Caleb. I won’t.” “But, Maya—” “Mom, that’s enough. I’m not going to discuss this. There is no way I’ll let myself get tangled up with any man I can’t depend on.” “But…but how do you know you can’t depend on Caleb?” she asked, seemingly dumbfounded. “He already left me once. Just walked out, without a word. And eight and a half months later, he waltzes back in again like nothing’s happened. Just like….” She bit her lip. “Just like your father,” Vidalia finished for her. “Oh, Mom, I didn’t mean—” “Yes, you did.” She got to her feet and walked away, up the stairs, and Maya heard the bedroom door close softly. Damn. She hadn’t meant to hurt her mother’s feelings. What was wrong with her, anyway? She strained to her feet and waddled through the house, checking locks, shutting off lights. She paused at the window to glance outside. Then she let the curtain fall back into place and sent a sidelong glance at the telephone. She told herself that she was not hoping he would call to say good-night. One hand on her aching back, she turned to go upstairs. And then the telephone rang, and she knew it was him before she even picked it up. “Hello?” “Maya?” Caleb asked. “Why aren’t you sound asleep by now?” She pursed her lips. “How do you know I wasn’t?” He hesitated. Then, “Oh, God, I’m sorry. Did I wake you?” Her lips pulled into a smile in spite of herself. “No. I was just on my way up.” “Well…well good. You, um…you need your rest.” “You sound like my mother. Why are you calling, Caleb? Is something wrong?” “No. I mean…yes.” He sighed. She heard it and frowned. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?” “What?” “It’s all right. I’ve been expecting it. I never asked you to stay, Caleb. Hell, at least you’re calling to let me know…this time.” “Maya…I’m not going anywhere. I’m calling because… Wait a minute, what do you mean, ‘this time’?” She closed her eyes. “Nothing. Just tell me why you’re calling.” It took him a moment. She wondered why. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am about this, Maya, but there’s been a leak. The story’s out. There was a tabloid scumbag waiting here when I got back to the boarding house tonight. Apparently he’s been following us around, snapping pictures. God only knows how much dirt he thinks he’s dug up on us.” Maya closed her eyes in relief, which was so odd that she felt like smacking herself in the head for feeling it. But she felt it all the same. A wave of relief that he hadn’t called to say goodbye. And while the actual news should seem far more serious than the latter would have been, it felt small in comparison. She must be losing her mind. Maybe it was hormonal. “Maya?” “Yes. I’m here. I’m just…well, I’m just not sure why you’re telling me this. What can I do about it?” There was a long pause. “I just wanted you to be warned. It’ll hit the tabloids tomorrow, and the press will be stampeding into town in droves.” “Well…then you’ll be able to tell your side of the story, won’t you?” “I’m afraid my side of the story isn’t exactly going to help matters.” She sighed. “This is liable to ruin your chances for the Senate, isn’t it, Caleb?” “I don’t know. It might.” “It will. If they go digging for dirt in my background, they won’t have to dig far, Caleb. My family is…rolling in it.” She licked her lips nervously. “It’s not me I’m worried about here, Maya. It’s you, your family. I don’t want this upsetting you—you’re in no condition to—” “Everything upsets me in this condition,” she said. “But I’m getting used to it.” “I’m going to fix this, Maya. I’m going to find a way to make it all right again. I promise.” “Don’t make promises, Caleb. I don’t like when they get broken.” “I promise,” he said again. “Try to rest, Maya. I’ll be there first thing in the morning.” “You will?” “Yeah. I will.” She pursed her lips, bit them to keep from making some remark about the last time he’d promised to be around in the morning, and whispered good-night. Then she hung up the phone and went up to bed. But she didn’t sleep for a very long time, and when she did, the dreams that plagued her were odd and frightening. She wore white and walked into the church on a fine summer Sunday, with two gorgeous toddlers clinging to her hands. But she found the church doors blocked by a crowd of her neighbors, all of them pointing at her and whispering words that blended together. Trash. Sinner. Harlot. And then they aimed those fingers at her children, and the whispers grew louder. Bastards. Fatherless. Illegitimate. Bastards. Beyond them all she saw Caleb, his suit impeccable, turning away and sneaking out the church’s back door. She looked down at her pristine children, but they wore rags now, and their faces were coated in tear-streaked dirt. And her own white dress had turned to scarlet. She sat up in bed with a gasp and a sharp pain in her middle. But then it eased, and she lay back again. “Just a dream,” she said. “This is the twenty-first century, for God’s sake. They don’t tar and feather fallen women anymore.” Maybe not literally, a little voice inside her whispered. No, the ways of making people feel less than worthy were far more subtle these days. The whispered remarks, the constant slights. The invitations that didn’t arrive, and the distasteful looks of those who considered themselves better. She’d grown up with all of those things. They had hurt her, because she’d been too smart a child to not be aware of them. She did not want her children to feel the sting of nasty people and their nasty attitudes. And yet she didn’t know how she could prevent it. Chapter 11 The telephone rang at 7:00 a.m. Maya had finally fallen into a fitful sleep, but the sound woke her instantly, and even as she rolled over, covered her head and decided to ignore it, she heard her mother’s voice from downstairs as she answered the call. But when she spoke again, Vidalia’s tone made Maya’s eyes blink wider, and all thoughts of sleep vanished. “Exactly where do you get the nerve to call my home and ask me something like that, mister? Don’t you dare call here again!” There was a bang, no doubt the sound of the phone being slammed back into its cradle. Maya got up, tugged on her industrial-sized bathrobe and went into the hall barefoot. She was halfway down the stairs when the phone rang again. And by the time she got to the bottom her mother was slamming it down just like before. “What is it, Mom? Who was that?” Her mother looked at her as Maya crossed the living room. The angry look on her face immediately eased, and she replaced it with a false smile. “Nothing for you to worry about, hon. Just some kid playing pranks on us, is all.” Her mother was lying, trying to protect her. She knew that. Maya reached the kitchen, eyed the filled coffeepot and longed for some real caffeine, and the phone rang yet again. She snatched it up before her mother could. “Hello, is this Maya Brand?” a strange voice asked. “Who wants to know?” She walked to the coffeepot, took a mug from the tree and filled it. “I’m Ben Kylie, a reporter for the Herald, ma’am. Do you have any response to the story in this morning’s Daily Exposè?” “I don’t read trash, Mr. Kylie, so I have no clue what story you mean.” She eyed her mother, who was sending her a look of pure worry. “You mean…you haven’t seen it?” “No, I haven’t. And I’m very busy today, so if you could get to the point…” “Sure. The point is the Exposè says you’re carrying the child of Cain Caleb Montgomery III, as the result of a drunken one-night stand last spring. It claims you yourself are the illegitimate progeny of a bigamist with connections to organized crime and a barmaid, and that your family’s main claim to fame is that you have a sister who poses nude for men’s magazines. Is this basically accurate?” Her mouth had fallen open as the man spoke, and now she drew the phone away from her ear to stare at it in disbelief. A firm, warm hand took the telephone from her, and she looked up through welling tears to see Caleb standing there. “Ms. Brand has no comment at this time. However, rest assured that her team of lawyers are even now preparing their libel suit. I would be extremely careful about what I printed if I were you.” He clicked the phone down, held it two seconds, gently unplugged it from the wall jack. His eyes met Maya’s. “I’m sorry. My God, Maya, I’m so sorry.” She held his gaze, even though hers was swimming now. “Did the Daily Exposè print what that man said it did?” “I…what did he say?” “Don’t avoid the question, Caleb. You know what he said. Have you seen the story or not?” He licked his lips. “Yes.” “And do you have a copy with you?” He shook his head side to side, hard. Too hard. She held out her hand. “No.” “Fine. I’ll go to the general store and buy my own copy.” She reached for the door. “Maya, for crying out loud, you’re barefoot and in your pajamas!” her mother said, reaching past her to press a palm to the door. “So what, Mom? You afraid the neighbors will talk?” Her voice broke just a little with the irony. “Look, it doesn’t matter what that rag sheet said or didn’t say, Maya. All that matters is how we respond to it.” Maya sank into a chair at the kitchen table, lowered her head onto her arms. “If it doesn’t matter, then why won’t you let me see it?” Her voice sounded muffled, even to her. But he could hear her. She knew he could. “Maya…try to understand.” He sat down in the chair beside her, and his hands closed on her shoulders. “You’re carrying my babies. I want to protect you from this kind of garbage. I want to stand between all that ugliness and my family.” Very slowly, she lifted her head. She knew her eyes were probably wet and red, and her hair was likely sticking up all over. She hadn’t even showered yet this morning. And yet he looked at her with kindness, tenderness, and caring, in his eyes. “Isn’t that what a father is supposed to do?” he asked her. “It’s what a mother is supposed to do, too, Caleb.” She sat up a little straighter. “Thanks for reminding me of that.” “Well, hallelujah,” Vidalia said, smiling. “I wondered where my daughter was hiding for a minute there.” “She’s back, Mom.” Maya sent her mother a loving smile. Then turned to face Caleb again. “I’m Vidalia Brand’s eldest daughter. I need to see the newspaper, and I promise you, I’m not going to fall apart when I do. No matter what it says.” Caleb lifted his brows and turned to glance at Vidalia. She gave him a nod. Looking as if he thought better of it, he reached inside his jacket and pulled out a folded-up tabloid newspaper. On the front page was a photo of Maya and Caleb walking into the clinic, obviously taken the day before. The headline said Front-Running Candidate’s Dirty Little Secret. She lifted her chin, folded the paper back up. “I’m going to shower and put on some decent clothes. I’ll take this with me.” “Maya, don’t worry. We’re going to fix this. I promise.” She looked at Caleb, so strong, confident, sure of himself. “You really do care about these babies, don’t you?” she asked. Because it was suddenly so crystal clear to her that he did. He held her gaze. “I didn’t know it was even possible to care this much, Maya.” She smiled a bit unsteadily. “I know the feeling.” “Do you need help…with anything?” She shook her head. “My sisters are still upstairs. I’ll, um…call them if I need them.” Then she frowned as a thought occurred to her. “Mom, if Mel catches any reporters snooping around, there’s going to be trouble.” Her mother looked worried, then looked at Caleb. Good Lord, why was everyone suddenly turning to him for answers? They’d got along just fine without a man forever! “No reporters will be near the place. I was on the phone half the night getting things set up. We’ve got security men stationed out front. No one’s going to get past them. My top aid is on his way here with my legal team. They’ll help us formulate our response. And by the time you get out of the shower, Maya, you’ll have a new private telephone number.” She tilted her head. “You work fast.” “I’ve been in this game a while.” She got to her feet, but before she turned to go, he stopped her, placing his hands tenderly on her swollen belly. “I’ll make it all right…for all of you. I promise.” She laid her hands over his. “I honestly believe you’ll try, Caleb.” He was looking very deeply into her eyes just then, and there was something else. “All this…all that’s been happening…there hasn’t been time to talk about…anything else.” She lowered her head. “What else is there?” And before he could answer, she turned and hurried away. By the time she came back downstairs, dressed in her prettiest maternity clothes, back throbbing and clenching in protest, Maya’s home was crawling with strangers. Men with radios and headsets sipped coffee and munched on crumb cake in the kitchen, and the dining room table was surrounded. Mel, Selene, Kara and Vidalia lined one side of the long oak table, while three men in dark blue suits lined the other. Caleb sat at the head, and the chair to his right was empty. “I’m telling you, Caleb,” one animated man in his late twenties was saying. “I can spin this thing into solid gold, for both you and Ms. Brand.” “She’s not going to like it, Bobby,” Caleb said. “What won’t I like?” Everyone looked up to see her. The men rose, and Caleb pulled out the empty chair for her. “Gentlemen,” Caleb said, “meet Maya Elouisa Brand, the mother of the heirs to the Montgomery fortune.” She blinked in surprise. “That’s a far cry from my former title—’the slut who destroyed the Montgomery-legacy.’” “Thank you,” the impeccably dressed, almost boyishly good-looking Bobby said. She frowned at him. “Why are you thanking me?” “For the compliment on my work. ‘Mother of the heirs to the Montgomery fortune.’ That’s mine. It’s what I do,” he explained. “You’re status is soon going to be the American equivalent of royalty, Ms. Brand. I’m the best spin doctor in the business. And you…well….” Shaking his head, holding his palm up toward her, he smiled. “Hell, with you to work with, this is going to be a cake-walk.” She frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.” She went to her chair, took it, and the men sat down. “Well, look at you. You’re gorgeous. And you have that clean, natural, healthy look about you.” “I’m not sure whether to thank you or offer to let you check my teeth,” she said. Bobby smiled even harder. “Perfect. Wit, too. You’re perfect.” “Perfect for what, Mr….um…?” “Bobby McAllister. Just consider me your new right-hand man.” She glanced at Caleb, who looked uncomfortable, and then at her mother and sisters, who sat there wide-eyed and uneasy. “So what is this plan I’m not going to like?” She looked to Caleb. He reached out, took her hands and drew a deep breath. “Believe me, this is not the way I would have…gone about this, given the choice, Maya. But…” He paused, looked at the men around the table, then at Vidalia. “Maybe it would be better if I could speak to Maya alone.” “Good thinking, son,” Vidalia said with a smile of encouragement. “The family room is empty.” Caleb drew a breath so deep it made his chest expand. Then he blew it out again, got to his feet and reached for Maya’s hand. Frowning, she took it and let him help her up. “This better be good, Caleb,” she told him. “Getting up out of a chair is no small effort, you know.” He shot her a look and a slight smile. A nervous one, though. And he kept hold of her hand as he led her through the doorway to the left, into what they called the family room. It held a wall of bookshelves, a sewing machine and several baskets full of half-finished projects, a writing desk, and an air hockey table. A smaller table in the corner held a propane burner and a double boiler. Strings tacked to the walls like miniature clotheslines had hand-dipped candles suspended from them to dry. And in yet another small alcove, a TV/VCR combination sat near a rocking chair. Caleb stood in the center of the room, looking around at the odd collection and smiling. “It’s…” Maya began. “No, no…let me. The sewing stuff is yours. My crafty, talented baby-quilt maker. The candle making setup has to be Selene’s. Actually, I’m surprised it’s not a Ouija board or something.” “Mom makes her keep that in her room.” He smiled. “The air hockey has to be for Mel. And the books and television must be Kara’s.” “She lives for fantasy,” Maya said. “The desk is your mother’s.” She nodded. “Getting to know this family fast, aren’t you?” “I hope so.” He walked to the most comfortable chair in the room, turned it slightly and nodded at her to sit on it. She did. “What’s Bobby’s brilliant plan, Caleb?” He stood in front of her for a minute. Then, finally, he took her hands in his and dropped down to one knee. “Maya…” “Oh, come on—” She tugged her hand against the grip of his and wished he wouldn’t say what she thought he was going to say. He held on tighter and said it anyway. “Let’s get married.” She closed her eyes. “That’s got to be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” He licked his lips, lowered his head. “Not exactly the reaction I was hoping for, Maya.” “Caleb, we barely know each other!” “Maya, you’re having my kids. Two of them. And…and, hell, if I had to choose a wife today, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather marry than you.” “If you had to. The point is, you don’t have to.” “No. I don’t have to. And neither do you. But if you’ll just listen to my argument here, I think you’ll see that it’s the logical thing to do.” “The logical thing to do would be to get up off the floor, Caleb.” He frowned at her, but got up. Pushing a hand through his hair, he turned and paced away, then paced back again. “So, present your case, already. I can’t wait to hear this.” “Okay. Here it is. Marrying me will be the difference between you being seen the way Bobby described you out there and the way that tabloid rag did. It is the difference between you being the most notorious member of your family or the envy of every woman in town. It’s the difference between those babies you’re carrying being legitimate or illegitimate. Between them being snubbed or respected as…practically as princes. And it will be the difference between our story being a dirty little scandal or a classic American fairy tale.” She pursed her lips. “And it will make the difference between you winning or losing the senate race.” He gaped at her. “My God, I don’t even know if I’m going to run! Maya, that is the last thing on my mind, I swear to you.” She narrowed her eyes on him, not sure she believed that. But she did know he cared for the babies. Deeply. “I…I don’t know, Caleb. This is…this is very sudden and I…well, I don’t—” “Is there someone else?” He asked the question so suddenly she almost hurt her neck snapping her head up. “Someone else?’’ she asked. “Are you out of your mind? Have you looked at me lately?” He muttered something that sounded like, “In my sleep,” but she couldn’t be sure. “You’re beautiful, smart, sexy as hell.” “I’m a heffalump.” He smiled then, broadly, widely, and came back to her. He ran a hand over her hair, cupped her cheek. “You’re beautiful. Tell me there’s no one else.” She rolled her eyes. “There’s no one else.” “Then why not me? Maya, I can give you everything.” “I don’t want everything.” She bit her lip, sighed heavily. “I want to live here, not in Tulsa or D.C. or wherever you’ll end up if you win this thing.” “You’ll be able to do that. I promise.” “Yes, I imagine I will.” But where would he be? She didn’t voice the question. “I don’t want my kids getting their hearts broken, Caleb. I don’t want them giving their whole hearts to a father who’s going to walk out on them and leave them bleeding. I can’t do that to my babies.” His eyes widened, and they seemed wounded, way down deep. “That’s what your father did to you, didn’t he, Maya?” She closed her eyes, nodded. “I really did love him. And Mom…God, she still feels some kind of misplaced loyalty to the man. But he was cheating on her, cheating on all of us, and it hurt me, Caleb. It tore my mother apart, and it broke my heart. He was never around when we needed him, and we never knew why until he was dead and gone.” She lifted her eyes to his, knowing they were tearing up again. “I know it almost killed my mother. But she was a strong woman. I was just a little girl, and I can’t even begin to tell you how the truth ravaged my whole world. Everything I knew, believed, had been a lie. Now I’m the mother. And I’m strong, and I can take anything this world can dish out. But I won’t subject my kids to that kind of heartache, Caleb. I won’t let you hurt my children the way my father hurt me.” He stood there for a moment. Then he sank to the floor again, just sitting down in front of her chair. He drew a deep breath and sighed heavily. “I’ve been meaning to explain some things to you. So much has happened that it just keeps getting pushed aside, but I can see now that it’s important.” He looked up at her. “When I came out here that night last spring, I was running away from who and what I was. I told you that but I didn’t explain it to you. Not really. I was running from what was expected of me. When I saw you in the bar that night all I could think was whether a woman like you would give a guy like me a second look—without the name, without the legacy. And then…you didn’t recognize me. You didn’t know who I was. And you…you liked me anyway.” She tilted her head to one side, studying him, seeing sincerity in his eyes. “Yeah, well…what’s not to like?” “I’d never had that before, Maya. Everyone in my life wanted something from me. No one just wanted me…for me. And I needed that so badly that night. So I didn’t tell you my real name. It was stupid, and I’ve regretted it ever since.” She lowered her head. “And yet…you left that night. You said you’d stay…and then you left.” “Just like your father did,” he said softly. He lifted a hand to her cheek, and she closed her eyes at his touch. “I got a call that night. My father had a stroke.” Her eyes flew open, met his, saw the truth there. “You can check it out. Hospital records—hell there was even a piece in the paper about it. I rushed home…and I decided to stop running from my destiny and live it. I didn’t contact you again…because I was afraid of what you’d think of me. Running out on you, lying about who I was. I figured I’d already blown any chance I might have had with you. I figured you were better off without me, anyway.” She sighed, shook her head. “You’re such an idiot, you know that?” But she said it softly. “If only you’d called.” “I know. I know. I screwed it up…badly. But there was something between us that night. I know there was.” He put a hand gently on her belly. “I think…there’s something between us now. Something more than just the babies. And I think we owe it to them, and to each other, to find out what.” “Finding out what is a far cry from getting married, Caleb.” He nodded. “I know. But…marriage is just the legal part of this. The paperwork part of it. It’s got nothing to do with what’s really happening here.” She averted her eyes, felt her cheeks heat all the same as she asked, “Then… you’re talking about a… a marriage in name only. Just for the sake of the babies.” “No,” he said. “Not necessarily. Unless…that’s what you want.” She couldn’t look at him, couldn’t answer him. “Listen, let’s do this. Let’s get married, officially, on paper, for the record. For the kids and the press and the public. But between you and me, Maya…let’s just take this one day at a time. See where it leads.” He took both her hands in his. “I can promise you this, Maya. I’d walk through fire before I’d hurt these babies. I swear it on my mother’s grave.” A tear finally fell onto her cheek and rolled slowly down. She wanted to believe him more than she had ever wanted anything. But she was so afraid he would let her down. All the same, she knew his solution made perfect sense. “Okay, then,” she said. “Okay.” “Yes!” someone shouted. Maya and Caleb both turned their heads sharply. The door was opened just a crack, and Selene smiled sheepishly at them and, backing away, pulled it closed. A second later it burst open again, but this time it was Bobby, in his extremely expensive suit, who appeared, smiling and rubbing his hands together. Maya could almost see his mind clicking away behind his eyes like some high-tech piece of equipment. “It’s agreed, then?” he asked. “That’s great. Listen, neither of you talks to the press. Not yet. We’ll go the righteously indignant route for today. Of course, I’ll arrange a couple of leaks. Get people wondering. Then we’ll grant some lucky reporter an exclusive. Meanwhile, we need to get our story in place. So…” He paused there, probably because Caleb was frowning at him, and finally Bobby glanced at Maya. “I’m sorry. Um…congratulations, Ms. Brand. I don’t mean to come on like a steamroller here.” She wasn’t sure what he meant to come on like, but she was thinking more bulldozer than steamroller. “I’d just as soon leave the plotting to the two of you, if that’s okay,” she said. “Maybe you could just fill me in later?” Getting to his feet, Caleb nodded and gave her a nervous, encouraging smile. “We’ll handle everything. Just don’t worry. It’s not good for the babies.” She nodded, and hurried—as much as a woman her size and shape could hurry—out of the room. Her sisters and her mother were waiting in the dining room, all of them on their feet, all of them grinning ear to ear, and only her mother’s eyes shadowed by a hint of worry. “I guess you already know the big news,” she said. Vidalia came forward then, pulled her close and hugged her tight. “My baby. Are you sure this is what you want to do, hon?” Forcing a brave expression, she pulled away just enough to look her mother in the eye. “I think it’s…I think it’s the right thing, Mom.” And then she waited for the reassurance she needed to hear right then. “No you don’t, girl,” her mother said. “You’re scared to death. But, honey, I think you’re doing the right thing. I do, Maya. I honestly do.” “Oh, yes, of course you are!” Selene chimed in, coming closer. “You wait and see. It might not seem perfect right now, but…oh, it will be.” “It better be,” Mel said, eyeing the closed family room door. “He hurts you or those babies, and I’ll personally kick him in the—” “Melusine!” Mel frowned at her mother, then sent Maya a wink. “But don’t worry. I think he might be an okay guy.” “I think this is the most romantic thing in the world!” Kara said, wiping at her eyes. “There’s nothing romantic about it, Kara. We’re doing what’s best for the babies. That’s all.” “Landsakes,” Vidalia said, slapping her hand to her forehead. “Do you have any idea how much there is to be done? Why, there’s the dress, the church, flowers and food—and here we are standing around! Do we even have time for invitations? These babies could come at any moment!” Chapter 12 Her mother, her sisters and Bobby seemed to have bought every newspaper in print the next morning. It was the day before Christmas Eve. A time when she should be bustling around in excited holiday preparations. Not worrying about the press. At first Maya was almost afraid to look at the newspapers scattered across the table. The ones she’d seen the day before had been horrible. Mean-spirited, and filled with attacks on her character and personal life. Some went so far as to suggest she’d deliberately sought Caleb out and gotten pregnant with his child, all as a means to get her hands on the coveted Montgomery fortune. Hesitantly she picked up one paper, glancing at the headline. More Than Meets the Eye? Her gaze skimmed to the lines someone had highlighted. “Sources close to Montgomery suggest there is far more to this story than meets the eye, and that it is, in fact, more a tale of star-crossed lovers than a political scandal.” Frowning, she set that paper aside and glanced at the one beneath it, which also had lines highlighted in yellow. “The Reverend Jackson of the Big Falls Christian Church, claims that despite what the press has had to say about Miss Brand, her character is beyond reproach. In fact, all the residents of the small town seem to have positive opinions about Maya Brand. Far from the party girl some sources have depicted, residents claim she has rarely even been seen in the company of a man, much less dated one. She goes to church every Sunday and is good to her mother and sisters. Doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t swear. So what is the real story here? At the moment, Montgomery remains stoically silent on the issue, refusing any comment at all.” She set the paper down atop the rest of the stack on the kitchen table when she heard the now familiar pattern of Caleb’s footsteps. Heavy steps, trying hard to be light. Measured, but not hesitant. Pausing, always, when he got a certain distance from her. She wondered about that. “Morning,” he said softly. She looked up. He was whiskery this morning. His hair was tousled, his eyes sleepy. He’d been up half the night plotting with Bobby and the two lawyers her mother insisted on calling Oompah and Loompah. Not to their faces, of course. The lawyers and Bobby had taken up residence at the boarding house. Caleb had spent the night here, in Edie’s old room. “Morning,” she replied. Then she held up her coffee mug. “You want some?” “I’d love some, thanks.” He took her mug, took a sip, licked his lips and handed it back to her with a smile that told her he knew full well that wasn’t what she’d meant. “That’s so good I think I’ll get a cup for myself.” “That was the whole idea,” she said. He crossed the room, poured his mug full, sipped again and said, “Caffeinated?” She turned to look at him. “Half. I swear it won’t hurt the babies. But I might have collapsed without it.” He frowned at her. “Not sleeping well?” “No.” He lowered his head fast. “It’s all this stress. I knew it would be bad for you—” “It’s only partly because of the stress, Caleb. Mostly, it’s these kids of yours, wriggling around. I swear they’re line-dancing in there.” Smiling at her, Caleb returned to the table, set his mug down and moved behind her chair. “It won’t be much longer, Maya.” His hands closed on her shoulders, squeezed, pulled, released. “Lean forward, hm?” She sighed deeply and, folding her arms on the table, laid her head on them. “You don’t have to do that,” she said, and didn’t mean a damn word of it. He rubbed between her shoulder blades, then down her spine, and finally made small, delicious circles right at the small of her back where it seemed all the tension of the past eight and a half months was centered. “Oooh, yesss,” she moaned very softly. His hands stilled, but only for a moment. Then he went right back to rubbing again. “We, um…we’ve got an interview scheduled with Dirk Atwater, today at noon. He’s with the Oklahoma Times. They’re putting out an evening edition, and we’re the lead story.” She lifted her head a little. “Do I have to be there? I mean, you’re the celebrity here. Can’t you do the interview?” He stopped rubbing. “I can. Sure I can, if you want.” “Keep rubbing.” She almost heard him smile, but he started massaging her again. “It would be better if I was there, though, wouldn’t it?” she asked. “It’ll be fine either way.” “Is that what Bobby would tell me if I asked him?” He hesitated. His hands stopped moving on her back. So she sat up and turned to look over her shoulder at him. “You don’t have to protect me, you know. If it’s better for me to be there, I can be there. It’s not my dream come true, but it won’t kill me, either.” “I just…don’t want you doing anything you’d rather not be doing right now.” She smiled. “Tell me that when I’m in labor. Speaking of which—I’ll make a deal with you.” His brows went up. “A deal?” “Yes. I made a little appointment of my own for us today. You come to mine, and I’ll come to yours. Okay?” He narrowed his eyes on her. “Do I dare to ask what I’m agreeing to here?” “You said you wanted to be in the delivery room, didn’t you?” Very slowly, he nodded. “Well, then you should come with me today.” He didn’t realize what he was agreeing to. And he didn’t regret it, exactly, he just hadn’t been prepared. He drove. And he pretended not to notice the number of vehicles that fell in behind the rather weather-beaten van as he left the Brand family home behind. “We’re going to have to get a new van,” he commented. She swung her head toward him. “What’s wrong with this one?” “Nothing!” he answered quickly, because she sounded slightly defensive. “I mean, it’s just odd, the wife-to-be of a multimillionaire, driving around in…uh…an older… vehicle.” She pursed her lips, crossed her arms over her belly. “I worked hard for this van. It’s a nice van.” “I know you did, and I agree. It’s a very nice van.” She pouted a little, then sighed. “I suppose a newer one would be safer. For the babies, I mean.” “Oh, yeah. Lots safer. Side impact protection, built-in baby seats—you know, they say a lot of kids get hurt because their car seats aren’t fitted correctly for the kind of vehicle they’re in.” She frowned at him. “Where did you hear that?” “Read it. One of those parenting magazines I got from the clinic. See, the seats of various vehicles are shaped differently, so the baby seat that’s perfect for one car might be totally unsafe in another.” “You actually read all those magazines you took home?” she asked him, her eyes curious. “Sure I did. Research. I bought about a dozen books in town, too.” He glanced at her as he pulled to a stop at a red light, the only red light in town. She was smiling. “I’m really glad you believe in doing your homework, Caleb.” “Why?” “Because that’s what we’re doing now. Turn right here. It’s at the house around the corner.” “We’re going to someone’s house?” “Uh-huh. Nancy Kelly. She’s the nurse who gave the natural childbirth classes I attended. I called her, and she agreed to give us a quick refresher course, since you missed the first round.” He felt his eyes widen. “Childbirth…classes?” “You want to be in the delivery room, don’t you?” He nodded mutely. “You want to know what to do while you’re in there, don’t you?” “I kind of thought being there would be the extent of my…duties.” “You thought wrong, then.” She said it with such a sweet smile that he almost stopped being nervous. Fifteen minutes later, though, the nervousness was back and then some. He was sitting on some woman’s living room floor, legs stretched out in front of him, with Maya reclining in between them. “Come on, Maya,” Nurse Nancy said with a scowl. “Lean back and relax. You know how this is done.” “It was a hell of a lot different with Mom as my partner,” Maya said, but she did lean back. She reclined against Caleb’s chest, and her hair was under his chin, and the scent of it reached up to tickle his nose and his memory. It smelled the same as it had that night, all those months ago. But wait a minute, he wasn’t supposed to be thinking thoughts like that. Certainly not at a time like this. “Put your hands on her belly, Caleb. No, no, like this.” Nurse Nancy bent to take his hands and place them strategically on the lower part of Maya’s swollen middle. Then she paused and looked up. “My goodness, Maya, the babies certainly are riding low today.” “I thought something felt different. Does that mean anything?” Nancy smiled. “It might mean you’re getting ready to deliver.” “You think?” she asked, eyes widening. “Well, if I were a betting woman,” Nancy said, “I’d lay odds you’ll go within forty-eight hours.” She shrugged. “Of course, I could be wrong.” Maya looked up at Caleb, her eyes shining with a combination of nerves and excitement. Nancy replaced her hands on Caleb’s, moved them slowly. “Now rub very gently, in soft, slow circles. It’s going to soothe her through the contractions. See?” He moved his hands over her. It was intimate. Almost sensual. When he glanced down at Maya, he saw that she had closed her eyes. This was the most relaxed he’d seen her since he’d been back here. “Am I doing it right?” he asked softly. Her lips curved into a smile. “You’re a whole lot better at this than Mom was.” “Yeah?” “You’re not doing the breathing, Maya.” “I’ll hyperventilate and pass out.” “Then you’re in the perfect place for it,” Nancy said. “Now breathe. Hee hee hee, who. Come on.” “Hee-hee-hee-who,” she breathed, only she managed to do it to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth, and Caleb burst out laughing. “Oh, sure, encourage her!” Nancy said in exasperation. Maya opened her eyes to grin up at him, her head moving up and down with his laughter. He looked back at her, and for just a moment their eyes locked. He stopped laughing. Her smile faded. And something inside her reached out to touch something inside him. At least, that was what it felt like. “Now, Caleb,” Nancy said, “I’m going to explain to you what happens when we get to the actual pushing.” He almost grimaced in pain at that thought Maya said, “Don’t worry. As my mamma used to say before a spanking, ‘Darlin’, this is gonna hurt me a whole lot more than it’s gonna hurt you.’” “I wish it wasn’t.” “My mamma also used to say to stop whining and be a Brand. Don’t you worry, Caleb. I’ll be fine.” He hated the black fear that crept up inside him when he thought of the ordeal ahead. His mother had died, hemorrhaged to death with the doctors right there, helpless to save her no matter how they tried. And one of her children stillborn. The day of his birth had been a black day of despair and grief, rather than one of joy and celebration. He damn well didn’t want the Montgomery family curse visiting itself on this woman…on these babies. But he didn’t know what to do about it. He noticed the nurse looking at him oddly, tried to shake the dread out of his expression, and forced a smile as he continued with his lesson in how to coach the woman who would be his wife through labor and delivery. But later, when they’d finished and Maya had gone to visit the rest room before they left for home, the woman handed him a pamphlet. “Everything we’ve been over is on here. So you can review things before the big day.” “Great I was beginning to regret not taking notes.” She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “So what is it you’re worried about Mr. Montgomery?” “Caleb. Please, after the things we’ve discussed today, I think we ought to at least be on a first-name basis.” She lifted her brows, gave a nod and waited. “You looked scared to death once or twice.” He nodded, licked his lips and glanced nervously in the direction Maya had gone. Not seeing her, he looked back at Nancy again. “I was a twin. My mother hemorrhaged—they couldn’t save her.” “I’m sorry.” He held up a hand. “My twin brother was stillborn.” “I see,” she said. “But, Caleb, that doesn’t mean—” “That’s not all of it. My father was a twin, as well, and his brother didn’t make it, either.” He’d let his gaze sink slowly as he spoke, but now he lifted it again to see if there was any reaction in her eyes. There wasn’t. She was a nurse, though, and trained to hide her emotions from frightened patients, he told himself. “Listen to me, Caleb. In the years since you were born there have been more advances in neonatal care than you can even imagine. We have babies born under three pounds today. Babies so tiny I’ve held them right in the palm of my hand.” She cupped her hand to demonstrate. “Babies who did just fine. Now Maya’s had ultrasound exams done. We already know that both babies are of good, solid size, and that they’re healthy. Maya’s healthy, too. And you’ve got to take her family history into account as well as your own. Her mother gave birth five times—the first two when she was only in her teens. And within a few hours, she was on her feet telling the other new moms in the ward to stop their whining.” He smiled at that. He couldn’t help it, it was such an accurate visual he was getting of Vidalia Brand. “Maya’s strong. The babies are strong. There’s no reason to think they won’t be just fine.” She looked at him again, smiled. “But if it will make you feel any better, I’ll give Maya’s doctor a call and bring her up to speed on your family history. Okay?” He nodded. “That’s good. I wanted to do it myself, but I didn’t want Maya to know any of this.” Nancy nodded. “That’s for the best. No sense getting her as terrified as you are.” “That’s what I thought, too.” She nodded. “I’ll keep it to myself—at least until after your kids are born safe and sound.” “Thanks. You’re a good woman, Nurse Nancy.” She made a face, rolled her eyes. “Gee, that’s the first time I’ve been called that.” Her tone was sarcastic but teasing. Reaching up, she tucked the pamphlet into Caleb’s shirt pocket. “See you in the delivery room, Dad,” she said with a wink. His stomach clenched all over again. “Bring smelling salts in case I pass out, all right?” “Oh, you wouldn’t be the first,” she assured him. For some reason, that didn’t make him feel any better. Chapter 13 Maya sat beside Caleb in the dining room, which looked as if it had been polished up for a royal visit. A photographer toyed with his camera at the far end of the table. Bobby sat in a chair, tucked away in the corner, lurking in the shadows like a happy frog who would snap into action if a fly happened by. And he didn’t seem the least bit concerned. He seemed as if he knew that everyone would fall easily into line with his plan and be better off for it in the long run. The guy had spunk. She didn’t particularly like spunk today, feeling almost completely devoid of the stuff herself. Although the time she’d spent with Caleb at Nancy’s house had been…it had been bliss. That was not a good thing, she reminded herself. She couldn’t forget that this was a game. A political game. She would be Caleb Montgomery’s wife because that was the role she needed to play for the good of all concerned. It didn’t mean anything, and she couldn’t let herself slip into believing that it did. Everyone else seemed to be lying low somewhere. Caleb’s lawyers, the Levitz brothers, were apparently still out at the boarding house. Vidalia and the others had gone out to order a wedding cake. The house was empty, except for the five of them. Dirk Atwater, the well-known reporter, was adding cream to his coffee in the kitchen, while his photographer frowned at the overhead light, and changed his camera lens. “If you get confused, just follow my lead, okay?” Caleb said in a low voice, leaning close, squeezing her hand. She nodded. But she felt sick with nerves. “And remember, the closer we stick to the truth, the better.” “Right.” “If you get confused about any details involving the wedding or arrangements, just make them up.” “I’m no good at making things up on short notice, Caleb,” she said quickly. “Well…then don’t make it up. Fall back on what you dreamed about as a girl. Okay? Every young girl dreams about her wedding day and what her married life will be like, doesn’t she?” “Well…yes, sure, but—” “Then use that. You’ll be fine, I promise.” She nodded again. The reporter came in from the kitchen with his coffee, sandy blond hair styled with some kind of miracle mousse that made it look silky soft but prevented it from moving even a fraction of an inch out of place. His eyes were too blue to be real. Colored contacts, she thought. He was fairly well known in Oklahoma, did TV spots all the time in addition to his print columns. He looked like he should be an actor or a model. He sat down with his coffee, looked from one of them to the other. “Are we ready?” Caleb glanced at her, brows raised. She smiled and gave him a nod. “As ready as we’ll ever be, Dirk. But before we begin, I do want to make one thing clear. Maya is very close to her due date. If anything said here seems to me to be upsetting her in any way, the interview is over.” The reporter’s brow quirked just a bit, but he nodded. “Fair enough.” He took a small tape recorder from his jacket pocket, set it on the table, clicked it on. “But, uh…I understood the baby wasn’t due for a couple of weeks yet.” “Well, here’s where you get the first of several scoops on your competitors,” Caleb said, his gaze brushing over Maya before returning to the reporter. “We’re having twins.” Dirk Atwater’s eyes widened, then he grinned. “Twins!” “Yeah. They run in my family.” “You never told me that,” Maya said, sending Caleb a frown. His smile faded, and he licked his lips. The reporter’s eyes sharpened, and he watched every move they made so closely that Maya felt as if she was under a microscope. “I’ve been meaning to,” Caleb said softly. “We’ve been so busy, with so much going on, there’s barely been any time.” She nodded in agreement with that. “At any rate,” Caleb went on, “twins normally come early, and Maya’s doctor expects them to make their entrance into the world any day now.” “Holiday babies,” Dirk Atwater said, scribbling a note. Then he sat back in his seat. “You won’t mind my making the observation that you two seem…close. Far from the relationship that’s been depicted between you by some of the tabloids.” Maya frowned. “I don’t know how those people could even pretend to know anything about Caleb and me. They’ve never even spoken to us.” “That’s why we invited you here today, Dirk. We want to set the record straight,” Caleb put in. “For the sake of your senate campaign?” Dirk asked. Caleb frowned. “At this point, I don’t even know whether there will be a campaign.” The reporter looked skeptical. Caleb sighed. “Right I don’t expect you to believe that. But for now, let’s keep this on the subject all right?” “All right. Fine. This young woman is carrying your children, Mr. Montgomery. What do you intend to do about that?” Caleb smiled then, not at the reporter, but at her. “I intend to marry her, just as soon as we can make arrangements.” The reporter blinked in surprise, looking from one of them to the other. “You’re…getting married?” Maya nodded at him. “On Christmas Eve, as a matter of fact.” Dirk Atwater glanced at his photographer, who shrugged at him. Then he looked back at Maya and Caleb again. “That’s…tomorrow.” And Maya nodded. “So… let me get clear on this,” Atwater said. “You’re getting married just to make things legal…to, uh, legitimize the babies, correct? Then, Caleb, you’ll head back to the mansion in Tulsa, while you, Ms. Brand, will continue on just as before.” Caleb started to speak, but Dirk held up a hand. “If you don’t mind, sir, I’d like to hear Ms. Brand answer this one.” Caleb nodded, and Dirk focused on Maya. “So tell me, Ms. Brand. What happens after the wedding?” Every eye turned on her. She fumbled, searched her mind, but damned if she knew what to say. She and Caleb hadn’t talked about what would happen after the wedding. Not in any detail. But then she recalled what Caleb had told her—fall back on her dreams if she got confused. And that should be easy enough. Lord knew she’d nurtured those dreams for long enough that she knew them by heart. She smiled at Dirk, got to her feet, belly first, and managed to accomplish the task even before Caleb leapt to his feet to help her. She walked to the window in the rear of the room, parted the curtain. “Come here, Mr. Atwater.” He did. And she pointed. “See that level spot, at the top of the hill, right back there?” Dirk nodded. “That’s the piece of this property that belongs to me. It’s where we’ll build our home. A big cabin, made of pine logs, with a huge cobblestone fireplace, and knotty pine window boxes, where I’ll grow pansies and geraniums. There will be a big room in the back for all my crafts and sewing. I’ll give lessons in my spare time. No one in this town is as good at crafting as I am.” She smiled, felt her cheeks heat just a little, but it was the truth. “I didn’t know that,” Atwater said. And he looked around the room, taking in the decor—the wilderness scene handpainted on the blade of an old crosscut saw, hanging over the picture window. The embroidered samplers, the needlepoint table scarves. He glanced at her again, brows raised. “These are all yours?” She nodded. “You ought to see the baby quilts,” Caleb put in, and she thought she heard pride in his voice but reminded herself he was playing a part. For the reporter. “There’s going to be a huge front porch on the cabin,” she told Atwater. “And a fenced yard in back, so the kids can’t wander too close to the woods. In the summertime, that hillside is just alive with wildflowers and song-birds…and the deer come out at twilight to nibble the tender grasses.” She sighed wistfully, visualizing it all just the way she’d always done. “And we’ll have a dog. A big, oversized, long-eared, shaggy mutt of a dog.” She was smiling broadly as she let the curtain fall and turned to glance back at the table, at Caleb. He was sitting there very still and very quiet, his face expressionless, and she felt her smile slowly die. Maybe she’d shocked him. Maybe her dreams didn’t fit in with his plans at all. “So this is for real, this marriage of yours? It’s not just for appearance’s sake?” Dirk Atwater turned away from the window to address Caleb. Caleb stared at Maya, and she stared back. Bobby got up and came over to the table. “Look at the two of them,” he said to Atwater. “Does that look to you like it’s for real?” The cameraman fired off a series of shots. Maya felt her stomach clench and quickly averted her eyes. But there was no stopping Bobby once he got started. “Over eight months ago, these two met by chance. Or maybe it was fate. The middle of a rainstorm, a flat tire, a man looking to get warm and dry walks into a charming little roadhouse and meets the girl of his dreams. It was love at first sight.” And as he spoke, Caleb never took his eyes off Maya. She wanted to look away, but found she couldn’t. “Through a series of misunderstandings and bad decisions,” Bobby went on, “they fell out of touch. Ms. Brand didn’t want to be labeled a gold digger—a fear that was justified, if the tabloids are any indication. And Mr. Montgomery didn’t even know about the babies. Now these two have managed to get past all of that and put things together again. Not for the sake of the press, Mr. Atwater. They’ve done this in spite of the press. In spite of public opinion. In spite of irresponsible journalists who see fit to drag Miss Brand’s family and her character through the mud to sell papers. In spite of the whole damned world, Mr. Atwater, these two star-crossed lovers have found their way back to each other. This is not a political scandal. This is a love story, Atwater. A Christmas story. A miracle.” Maya blinked back her senseless tears and wondered if Bobby was about to burst into a chorus of the “Star Spangled Banner” or “Silent Night.” She thought Dirk Atwater might very well shed a tear of his own at any moment. But then he pursed his lips, met her eyes and said, “So then there won’t be any prenuptial agreement?” Bobby’s jaw dropped, and Caleb said, “Don’t you think that’s getting a bit too personal, Atwater? That’s over the line.” Maya held up a hand. “Actually, I’m insisting on one.” She sent a gentle smile Caleb’s way. She’d been watching Bobby, and she thought she got it now. This art of “spinning.” “I know you’re against it, Caleb,” she said, though she had no idea if he was or not. In fact, she rather thought he would be nuts not to ask for a prenup. “I just see no other way to prove to the world that all of this isn’t an elaborate conspiracy to get my hands on your family’s money.” “You don’t need to prove anything to anyone, Maya,” Caleb told her. She sighed, nodded, but from the corner of her eye she saw Bobby’s slight nod of approval. Good. She’d done her job, and maybe she ought to quit while she was ahead. “I’m a little tired,” she said, rubbing the small of her back. Caleb was beside her in a flash, arms sliding easily around her as he eased her back to her chair. The camera went off. “Do you need anything? A drink? Something to eat?” Bobby cleared his throat. “I think this is going to have to conclude the interview. Dirk, you have the exclusive on the impending marriage and the twins until tomorrow morning. Then we’ll issue a press release. That’s all.” Atwater clicked off the tape recorder, nodded once and gathered up his notebook. “Thank you both,” he said. “I appreciate this, and I think you’ll see that when my story runs tonight.” He shook Caleb’s hand. Gave Maya a gentle smile. “You take care, Ms. Brand.” The photographer snapped another shot and then they left. Maya blew air through her lips and let her head fall backward in the chair. “God, I’m glad that’s over.” “Oh, come on, don’t tell me that was tough on you,” Bobby chirped, smiling. “You sailed through it like a pro! Hell, where did you get all that stuff about the log cabin and the dog and the pansies? I couldn’t have made that stuff up if I’d tried!” She brought her head level again, saw Caleb searching her eyes. He said, “You fell back on your dreams, didn’t you, Maya?” She shrugged. “Maybe I’m just a good liar.” “I don’t think so.” Looking away, she said, “So do you think he bought it?” “We’ll know in a few hours, when the evening edition hits the streets,” Bobby said. “You two ought to go into town between now and then. Be seen together. Pick out some baby clothes or something. Great photo op, with all the press in Big Falls.” Maya tried not to grimace at the thought. Caleb said, “No. I think maybe a quiet, healthy meal and then a long nap would be a better choice. Don’t you, Maya?” “Sounds like heaven to me,” she said. “You must be reading my mind.” “I wish. Come on, let’s get you someplace more comfy than this hard chair. Sofa or bed?” “The easy chair will be sufficient. I can’t be dozing with a wedding to plan.” Caleb brushed a lock of hair off her forehead. “Hey, trust your mom and sisters and Bobby and me to take care of all that, will you? You need your rest. You’ve got a pair of babies to deliver, you know.” She smiled a little nervously. “I want it simple, Caleb. No doves or violins or…or goose liver.” He made a silly pout. “Bobby, call the Pope and tell him we won’t need him to perform the ceremony after all, will you?” “Very funny,” she said. But she saw the odd, speculative look Bobby sent them. Caleb was already helping her to her feet, walking her into the living room and lowering her to the sofa. He tucked a stack of pillows behind her before ordering her to lie back, and then he stuck a few more under her feet. “I read that elevating the feet can ease the strain on the back.” Even as he said it, he pulled off her shoes, let them thud to the floor. “When you have time to do all this reading is beyond me,” she muttered, deciding to give in to the pampering. She was achy and tired, and it felt good to be babied. That tiny voice of doubt whispered at her not to get too used to it, but she brushed it aside. “Wait till you hear what I’ve learned about potty training.” Caleb winked at her. And she thought that it wouldn’t be so bad to live with this guy. At least…if that was what he intended. She wondered if it was. Wished it could be. Hated herself for daring to wish such a big wish. She fell asleep on the sofa in spite of her determination not to, and the nap was easily a couple of hours long. But the commotion in the kitchen woke her up at once. The deep booming voice belonged to some man who had no qualms about speaking at full volume. “Are you out of your mind! What are you thinking?” “Hey, just a goddarn minute, mister fancy-suit! Who in all hades do you think you are, storming into my kitchen, yellin’ like a lunatic, anyway!” Vidalia’s tone was just as loud and twice as mean. Maya started to get to her feet just as Kara reached the foot of the stairs. “What’s going on out there?” Kara asked. “Damned if I know,” Maya said. “Help me!” She held out a hand. Kara took it and pulled her to her feet. The yelling was still going on when the two of them walked into the kitchen. A man in a calf-length black wool coat stood just inside the door, having apparently just come in from outside. He leaned on a gleaming brass-handled walking stick. He had a face like a mountain of solid granite, after it had been blasted through to make room for a road to pass. Chiseled and lined and hard…but only on one side. The other side seemed oddly lax. The man towered a good six feet tall, even though he was leaning over just slightly, weight on the walking stick. He was waving a newspaper around in his other hand and saying, “Get out of my way, woman! This doesn’t concern you!” Vidalia was in his face, her forefinger poking him repeatedly in the chest to emphasize her words, “It’s my house, mister, and you’d better believe anything in it concerns me!” Behind her, Caleb shrugged. “You gotta admit, she has a point, Dad.” Maya gasped, and the three of them turned around, spotting her there. Caleb quickly took Kara’s spot beside her, his arm sliding protectively around her shoulders, his gaze doing a quick scan of her face. One she was getting used to. He was always looking at her like that, as if checking to be sure she was okay. As if he could see in her eyes if she wasn’t. “Maya, I’d like you to meet my father, Cain Caleb Montgomery the Second.” She looked from Caleb to the older man, who was scowling hard. “Dad, this is Maya. Soon to be your daughter-in-law and the mother of your first grandchildren.” “Over my dead body,” the old man growled. Vidalia leaned up into his face. “That can be arranged.” He glared at her, one eye narrowing slightly more than the other. “Mom, please,” Maya said, moving out of Caleb’s embrace to place a calming hand on her mother’s shoulder. Vidalia moved aside at Maya’s urging, and Maya stood before her future father-in-law. A more intimidating presence she couldn’t even begin to imagine. Even with the obvious damage the stroke had dealt him, he was an imposing man. But she lifted her chin and looked him in the eye. “I understand you being upset about this, Mr. Montgomery. But I promise you, I would never do anything to hurt your son or your family.” His brows went up. “I’m not sure if you’re a good actress, woman, or if you’re as clueless as you pretend to be, but trust me, the harm has already been done. And continues to be done.” “Father—” Caleb began, a deep threatening tone in his voice. “No, Caleb, let him speak. Please. I want to hear how he thinks I’ve harmed your family.” “Our reputation! Our line! By God, girl, we can’t have a girl of your background muddying up our family tree!” He shook the newspaper again. “Illegitimate, they say! Father was a bigamist, for landsakes! Ties to organized crime. Mother who—” “Mother who what?” Vidalia asked, gripping the front of his shirt in her fists. He stopped talking, looked down at the woman. “You? You’re the saloon-owning mother?” “You’re damn straight I am, mister, and I’m about to forget my manners and toss your sorry carcass out into the nearest briar patch.” He blinked down at her, his eyes wide. “Mom,” Maya said, “at least this one didn’t call you a barmaid.” Not that she expected it to help. “Dad,” Caleb said firmly, “your mother was a waitress at a truck stop when your father met her. Or have you forgotten that?” “My father wasn’t running for the U.S. Senate when he met her.” “That’s totally irrelevant.” “That’s the only thing that is relevant! Don’t you know what this girl’s background is going to do to your campaign, son? And this,” glancing down at the newspaper he tossed it onto the table, “this fairy tale Bobby’s trying to sell the public—it’s never going to work. Voters don’t care about sappy stories, they care about their bank accounts.” He shook his head slowly, then closed his eyes and pressed a hand to them. Vidalia gripped his arm. “Sit down, you foolish old windbag, before you fall down.” She guided him to a chair. “Kara, get some of Selene’s calmin’ tea brewing. That with the chamomile and valerian root.” As Kara shot into action, Vidalia eyed the older man. “You had a stroke last spring, didn’t you?” He looked up, defensively. “I’m completely recovered from that.” “Didn’t learn anything from it, though, did you?” Maya pulled out a chair and sat down beside the old man. Caleb sat beside her and turned the newspaper around so he could examine the story. Maya watched him reading it over and saw his lips pull into a smile. Then he pushed it toward her. “It’s good,” he told her. “It’s very good.” “Good? Bah, it’s fiction! Any fool can see through that sorry excuse for a cover story,” his father said. Kara put a teacup down in front of the older man, and then Selene appeared with a big amethyst in one hand and a bowl of mixed herbs in the other. “I heard yelling. What’s up?” She set the amethyst in the middle of the table. The glittering purple stone winked and glimmered. “My father arrived,” Caleb said. “You can call him Cain. Dad, this is Selene, Maya’s sister, the one you haven’t insulted yet tonight. The two you have are Kara, her other sister, and Vidalia, her mother.” He lifted his brows. “Vidalia? Like the onion?” He stopped short of sniffing in derision. “That’s right. They named me that because I’m so good at making arrogant jackass men cry like babies.” “Easy, Mom,” Selene called from the range, where she was fiddling around. “The negative vibes are going to be cleared out of this room in just a few seconds.” She poured the remaining water from the tea kettle into a saucepan, lit the burner underneath it and stirred it slowly while sprinkling her herbs into the water. “What the hell is this? You have some kind of witch doctor in the family, too?” “Careful, or she’ll turn you into a toad,” Caleb told his father. “Drink your tea.” His father sipped. “Bad enough about the stripper in the family! Now we have voodoo!” His brows went up, and he licked his lips; then he sipped some more of the tea. “We do not have any strippers in this family, Mr. Montgomery,” Vidalia huffed. “Actually, Maya’s older sister is a highly successful model,” Caleb said. His father grimaced but kept sipping his tea. “I don’t care if she’s an Oscar-award-winning actress,” he muttered. “This marriage can’t happen. I won’t let it happen.” “You don’t have a choice in the matter, Father.” “Son, don’t you see what’s going to happen here? You’ll lose your shot at the Senate.” “I’d rather lose my shot at the Senate than lose my shot at being a father to these babies.” His father’s head came up, and his eyes seemed frozen. “Babies? There are two?” Maya saw the look Caleb sent his father. There was a message in it, one his father seemed to see and read. He said, “Yes, twins. It was in the article.” The old man’s gaze slid toward Maya, then lower to her belly, and she could have sworn there was something new there. A hint of…could that be concern? Worry? At least it wasn’t blatant hostility. “I got so wrought up I never finished reading the whole thing,” he said. Steam was rolling off Selene’s brew now, and she was waving a hand at it as if to send it around the room. It gave off a pleasant, woodsy aroma. Then there was a tap on the door. Bobby came in, Mel right behind him. Both of them were smiling as they shouldered their way into the crowded kitchen. Kara looked at them. “Where did you two meet up?” “Just now in the driveway,” Mel quickly told her. She had a bag of groceries in her hands, which she handed off to Vidalia. “Bobby says he has good news.” She got out of the way, sniffing the air as she went to check out Selene’s concoction. “I sure do. Dirk Atwater’s paper ran a telephone poll in the same issue as the story. Caleb, your numbers have gone through the roof since they last ran this same poll, two weeks ago. Then you were neck and neck with the other likely candidates. Now you’re leading them by more than thirty percent.” Caleb’s brows rose. That was his only reaction. His father, on the other hand, looked stunned. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “The voters are actually falling for this nonsense?” “Voters have hearts, Cain,” Bobby told the older man. “I tried to tell you that years ago, but you never wanted to hear it.” “Well the voters in this family have stomachs,” Vidalia said firmly. “And if I hope to feed them, I’m going to need the bunch of you to take your backsides out of my kitchen.” Maya nodded and started to get to her feet, but Caleb put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “Stay put. Have some tea. Relax,” he told her. “I’m gonna take my father over to the boarding house, get him settled in. I think I, uh…need to have a talk with him. Get some things…straight.” She nodded. “Don’t be hard on him, Caleb. He’s your father, no matter what.” Caleb glanced at his father, who must have overheard that remark. Maya wondered if the man was still scowling at her but didn’t turn to look. “Maya, we have all the arrangements in place. I don’t want you fussing or worrying about anything at all. All you have to do is wake up in the morning. We’re getting married at ten o’clock.” She felt her brows shoot upward. “But…how did you pull everything together so fast?” She looked from Caleb to her mother and back again. “Your mom can fill you in on the details. Okay?” She nodded. “O-okay. I guess. Caleb, there’s so much I want to talk to you about before we…you know…do this thing.” “I know.” He looked at her so intensely she could almost feel the touch of his eyes. “I know. I’ll come back early, I promise. We’ll have time to talk. All the time you want. Okay?” She nodded. Then sucked in a breath of surprise when he leaned down and pressed a kiss to her mouth. It was quick, brief, but not a peck. It was firm and moist. A kiss that…seemed to mean something. But what? Then he was gone, Bobby and his father with him. “See that?” Selene said, still wafting her steam with her hands. “Cleared away the negativity so well that it even chased the old grouch away!” “He’s not as bad as he seems,” Maya said. “No one could be as bad as he seems,” Vidalia said. “Gee, what did I miss?” Mel asked. Kara grinned. “It’s just as well you did miss it, Mel. Otherwise that old goat would have been carrying his walking stick in a new place.” “Kara!” Vidalia scolded—or tried to, but it was ruined when the grin she tried to suppress broke through. Everyone laughed. Then Maya said, “So my wedding is all planned?” Vidalia smiled at her. “I’m under strict orders from that man of yours to get your approval on everything first. But I’m supposed to do that without giving you the slightest cause for stress or tension.” She shrugged. “Guess he’s never been around too many brides before if he thinks that’s possible.” She turned to pull her notebook from the top of the fridge and, flipping it open, sat down at the table. “It’s amazing what that man manages to do with a few phone calls. I’m telling you, hon, having all that money and clout is not a bad thing.” Neither, Maya thought, was being so popular in the polls. For some reason, though, that news didn’t make her as happy as it should. Because it meant he would probably decide to run after all, even though he’d said repeatedly that he hadn’t made that decision yet. He would make it now. He would run, and he would win. And he would have to spend half his time, or maybe more, in Washington, D.C., and the other half in the state capital, or traveling around doing…political stuff. If she did get her dream house, she would be in it alone. Well, she thought, a hand on her belly, not entirely alone. Just not with him. And for some reason that felt like the same thing. Then again, he hadn’t promised they would be together constantly, or even live together at all. That was one of the things they needed to talk about. Their living arrangements. Because she had no intention of moving away from her family. Especially when they might be all she and the kids had, if Caleb turned out to be the kind of man who would break his word, let her down. The kind of man who wouldn’t be there when she really needed him. More and more, she doubted Caleb was that kind of man at all. If only she could be sure…. Chapter 14 “Maybe…it can work after all.” Cain Caleb Montgomery II spoke the words as if they were being forced from his lips. And he had a grimace on his face while he did it. Caleb had been sitting before the fire in the parlor of Ida-May Peabody’s boarding house, talking with his father for the better part of an hour, hearing all the same arguments and keeping his father’s teacup filled with tea steeped from the little packets Selene had handed him on his way out of the Brand house tonight. He didn’t like the gray tinge to his father’s skin. He didn’t like the dizzy spell the old man had had earlier. And he didn’t like it that his father refused to admit to feeling even slightly less than peak. Now all those things faded to background worries as shock took precedence. He stared at his father, wondering if he’d heard him wrong. Maybe he’d fallen asleep and just dreamed it. “Did you just say you might have been wrong?” His father glared at him. “Don’t expect to be hearing it again any time soon.” He sipped the tea, his third cup, and for just a moment Caleb wondered what sorts of herbs Selene had put into it, and whether they were fully legal. “That woman, the mother with the onion name…” “Vidalia,” Caleb corrected. “That’s right Vidalia. She’s tough. I gave her my worst and she didn’t even flinch. Most females would’ve been weeping.” He puckered his lips in thought, rubbed his chin. “I like that about her. If your Maya has any of her mother’s gumption, she might just make you a decent wife. She doesn’t know how to dress or act, and that hair will have to go, but all that can be corrected. She seems bright enough to learn as she goes. I suppose she has all the raw material to be molded and shaped into—” “I don’t want her molded or shaped into anything, Father. I like the way she dresses, and I like the way she acts, and I’d fight any man who tried to get near her hair with a pair of scissors.” His father’s brows went up, and he studied his son’s face. “She’ll never survive in our world as she is, son. She’ll have to change, adapt to it.” Caleb looked away, because he didn’t want to argue with his father. Not tonight. Not when that statement made so much sense, even if nothing else his father said tonight had. His world would be difficult for Maya. Maybe impossible for her. But he wasn’t even clear on things in his own mind just yet. No, there was no sense upsetting his father by arguing with him, especially when the old man wasn’t feeling up to par. “How…er…are the babies?” his father asked, his tone gruff. For the second time tonight the old man had surprised him. Caleb got to his feet and walked to the fireplace, bent to toss a log onto the flames and stayed there, hunkered down as it began to burn. “The doctor says they’re both fine and strong. No sign of any problems.” “You’re worried, though.” Turning, he looked at his father over his shoulder. “Hell, yes, I’m worried. They’re twins. Like I was…like you were.” He felt too much showing in his eyes, so he jerked his head around, focused on the flames again. He heard his father get up, heard his steps but didn’t turn. A hot tear burned behind Caleb’s eye, but he blinked against it. Then a hand fell on his shoulder. “I’ve been there, you know.” Caleb’s brows came together. Stunned, he turned to look at his father. “It’s like a nightmare, where you can only watch what happens, but you can’t move to stop it, or do a damn thing to help. You feel the dread right down deep in your gut, but you’re paralyzed.” Blinking, Caleb said, “That’s exactly what it feels like.” “I know.” Lowering his head, shaking it, his father went on. “We knew there were problems with one of you long before the time for the birthing came, son. The doctors felt all along that one of the twins was not developing at a normal rate.” He lowered his head. “It felt like a personal insult to me. Hell, man, I never failed at anything before! And when your mother didn’t make it, either…Caleb, I was never the same. I felt responsible. If not me, then who? I was her husband. I was supposed to protect her, take care of her.” Caleb rose slowly. “So you blamed me for it.” Meeting his son’s eyes, Cain nodded. “Maybe…maybe a part of me did, son. That’s true. But that ended long, long ago. Since then it’s just been…a spin.” “A spin?” Cain nodded. “All my rubbish about the strong surviving, the weak falling by the wayside, sacrifice for the greater good. Hell it was how I dealt with the loss. By putting a spin on it. By pretending it was a sign of strength. Because if I could make myself believe that about you and the brother you never had, then maybe I could make it true about myself and my brother, as well.” He clasped Caleb’s shoulder hard. “But it’s not true and never was. Your twin didn’t survive because he didn’t develop normally. As for my own, I’ll probably never know. But that doesn’t mean these twins of Maya’s have to suffer the same fate, son. If they’re both strong and healthy this late in the game, then chances are—” “They’re going to be fine. Both of them. They have to be.” His father drew a breath, sighed. “My great-grandmother had twins, and both survived. Did you know that?” “No.” They stood side by side now, both staring at the fire. “Maya, she’s strong. Healthy. Comes from good stock, if that harridan mother of hers is any indication,” Cain told his son. Caleb nodded. “The woman gave birth five times without problems,” he said. “That’s good. That bodes well.” Cain didn’t turn. He said, “Your mother used to quilt. Did I ever tell you that?” Caleb looked at him in surprise. “I read in that article that Maya does that sort of thing, too. Just thought you’d like to know it was something she had in common with your mother. She was talking about giving it up. Said it was too rustic a hobby for a woman in her position. She never did, though. Just kept it to herself.” Turning, he set his empty cup down. “Guess I’ll head up to bed now. Big day tomorrow, with the wedding and all.” He started toward the stairs. “Dad.” The old man stopped but didn’t turn around. “Thanks.” “Goodnight, son.” “Night.” Caleb sat down again, alone now with his thoughts. His fears. And the new, confusing things circling his mind like sharks. He was glad his father had reached out to him tonight, tried, in his way, to mend old wrongs. But he couldn’t help but think he should have been having a long conversation with someone else tonight. With Maya. Because, dammit, there was so much he needed to work through where she was concerned. So much he was confused about. Mostly he wanted to know why she’d agreed to marry him. Had it been for the reasons he’d laid out? Because, frankly, he’d been making those up as he went along. It scared the hell out of him to admit it, even to himself, but he had to know. They were at zero hour. Mostly he’d just wanted to lock on to her and the babies in some way that assured him they wouldn’t just vanish from his life, fall through his tenuous grasp someday. Coming out here, he’d discovered that they were precious to him…she was precious to him. He could understand feeling that need to hold on to the babies. They were his, after all. But why that desperate need to cling to Maya? She was the mother of his kids. That had to be stirring some kind of primal instincts to life inside him. There were probably all kinds of psychological reasons why a man would feel drawn to a woman who was about to bear his children. Weren’t there? And why didn’t it feel as if that was the answer? Why was he suddenly dreading the thought of taking her with him, into his world, watching her evolve into the perfect political wife, seeing her change…and maybe cut her hair? Or…give up quilting? He stayed up by the fire for a long time, thinking, searching his mind. But all he kept seeing when he imagined the future was a log cabin on a hillside above a wildflower-strewn meadow. A couple of kids, and a big shaggy dog bounding through the blossoms. Maya on the front porch, in the sunshine. A doe and a pair of spotted fawns feeding out back. He fell asleep, and the images wove into dreams. Vivid, achingly wonderful dreams. Maya had pleaded exhaustion and gone to her room just to get out of the sight of her mother and sisters before the tears came. And once they started, they didn’t seem to want to stop. She buried her face in her pillows and thumped her mattress repeatedly with her fist, but it didn’t help. After twenty minutes she forced herself to sit up, reached for a tissue and caught a glimpse of herself in the vanity mirror. Red puffy eyes, wild hair, streaks on her face and a runny nose looked back at her. “You are a basket case, Maya Brand,” she told herself. “Why don’t you get a grip?” “Because you’re going to become a wife and a mother of two all in the space of the next few days, darlin’.” Her mother’s voice made her jerk her head around. Vidalia sat in the chair beside the bed. In her hands she held a big bowl of vanilla ice cream, with chocolate syrup drizzled over the top, a generous dollop of whipped cream…and two spoons. Maya sniffled. “How long have you been sitting there?” “Long enough for the ice cream to get just soft enough. I figured I’d let you cry it out. It’s cleansing, a good cry. Sometimes you just need to let it rinse you clean.” She held out the bowl. Maya eyed it. “I’m not hungry,” she said. “Since when do we eat ice cream because we’re hungry?” Vidalia asked, and set the bowl in her daughter’s lap. Maya picked up the spoon and took three consecutive bites. “You came upstairs before I got to tell you about the wedding plans that man of yours managed to put together.” She sniffed, ate another bite, looked at her mother. “He spoke to Reverend Jackson, and the reverend says he’ll personally take care of getting the church ready. He even offered to have the full choir turn out, and Mrs. Sumner is practically begging to be allowed to play the organ.” Vidalia sneaked a quick taste of the ice cream with her own spoon. “And get this, Mrs. Mackensie and the Ladies’ Auxiliary volunteered to see to it the flowers arrived and take care of the decorations. Well, you know, Mrs. Mackensie’s sister is the only florist in town, so I suppose that makes sense, but—’’ “But, Mom, the church ladies don’t even like me.” “Oh, honey, they do now.” Maya thrust out her lower lip. “I don’t think I want them at my wedding.” Her mother smiled. “That’s exactly what Caleb told them. He said he just wanted use of the church, thank you very much. Said he had his own florist in mind, and that he didn’t want anyone there who wasn’t specifically invited. Told the reverend his next sermon ought to be on loving thy neighbor and the dangers of false pride.” She smiled. “The reverend laughed! He said it was about time someone put that bunch in their place, and he thought Maya Brand was just the one to do it.” Maya’s eyes widened as she stared at her mother. “It’s true, hon. Oh, don’t you see, child? You’re getting what you’ve always wanted. Respectability. Why, you’re marrying into a family who could buy and sell this town and everyone in it. Every person who ever snubbed you is gonna be kissing up full force, just hopin’ to get invited to have a cup of coffee with you.” Maya’s face puckered and her lower lip quivered. “Y-you’re right. That’s wh-what I’ve always w-wanted. But I wanted to earn it…not marry into it.” “You’d already earned it, Maya. That’s the point. Those women are forced now to give you the respect you already deserved. You should be happy to see them so firmly put in their places.” “I…know I should.” Her mother tilted her head to one side. “Well, then, how come you’re crying?” “I don’t know!” she wailed, and the tears flooded her face, and she shoveled in some more ice cream. “Darlin’,” her mother said after a moment, “I do know. And so do you, deep down. And you’d best get busy thinking it through and figurin’ it out, because you’re gonna be married in a few hours, and it would be a darned good notion to have your head on straight when you do.” Blinking several times, sitting up straighter, she thought very hard. Her mother snatched tissues from the box and wiped Maya’s face, her nose. “Well?” Maya stared down at the melting ice cream in the bowl. “I’m afraid I’m not good enough to be a senator’s wife.” “You’re good enough to be anything you want to be, and you know it. I haven’t raised you to think otherwise. Now think some more. What’s really wrong?” Maya frowned. “Maybe it’s…that I think he might not think I’m good enough—” “Bullcookies. He wouldn’t be marrying you if he thought that way. Try again.” “His…father. Yes, that’s it, his father hates me, and—” “His father is a teddy bear trying to act like a grizzly. I can’t believe a daughter of mine didn’t see through that stuff and nonsense at first glance.” Licking her lips, Maya nodded. “I did. He’s just lonely and feeling left out.” “Uh-huh.” Drawing a deep breath, Maya sighed, took a big bite of ice cream and thought some more. “Maybe it’s…that I don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, I don’t want to move away from here. But he’s going to have to, if he becomes a senator. And I don’t want to go with him, but I don’t want to be left behind, either.” “Why not?” Her brows went up. Another bite. “Well, I…I…the babies. It would be hard on the babies, and hell, I don’t want to be raising them all alone. I mean, I’ve seen how hard that is.” “We’ve been just fine alone, Maya. You know you could do it, and do it in spades, if you had to.” “But this is different. I mean…okay, it’s not that I don’t think I could raise the kids alone, I mean, I could. Of course I could. I know I could.” Vidalia nodded and dipped her spoon in for another bite. “It’s just that I don’t want to be alone.” “You were fine alone, a year ago,” her mother pointed out. “That was before I met Caleb….” Maya blinked and went very still with a spoonful of ice cream halfway to her mouth. She lowered the spoon. “Oh, no,” she whispered. “What if I love him?” She turned to stare at her mother through eyes gone wide with horror. “Landsakes, Mom, what if I love him?” Maya’s mother sat beside her, stroking her hair and talking to her until she finally fell asleep. A restless, fitful sleep, but still, she needed the rest. And she did rest, just fine, until about 1:00 a.m. when something woke her. She wasn’t sure whether it was the howling wind outside or the sensation of being soaking wet from the waist down. She only knew that the house was freezing cold and pitch dark, and that her water had broken. “Mom?” she called. And then a giant band seemed to close tight around her middle, squeezing her front and back, inside and out, and she gripped her belly and yelled louder, pain and fear driving the single word out of her with far more force than before. ‘‘Mamma!” An insistent, howling sort of cry shook Caleb out of sleep. At first, in his drowsy state, he thought it was Maya’s voice, crying out to him for help. He came awake with a start, surprised that when he opened his eyes, the only light to be seen was the orange red glow of the coals in the fireplace, a few feet from him. And the cry he’d heard was only the wind, shrieking abnormally outside. Blinking away the sleep haze, Caleb realized he’d fallen asleep on the sofa in the living room of Ida-May’s boarding house. Still, there was usually a light left on down there at night. Sitting up, he rubbed his shoulders, suddenly chilled. Then he reached for the big lamp on the end table. Click. Nothing. He tried again, but it was no use. Either the bulb was blown or… “…or the power’s out,” he said aloud. And that was when that wailing wind outside drew his attention again. And there was rattling, too. He half expected to see a death wagon come thundering into the room with a banshee at the reins, singing her funeral dirge. He shook that image away with another shiver, a full body one this time. “It’s the wind,” he muttered. And he went to the fireplace, added three chunks of wood, then rose again and tried the wall switch. Still no lights. But as the flames grew, they illuminated the room for the most part. He could see around him. Orange and yellow, leaping shadows. Then another light appeared. A small flame, floating closer out of the shadows, until it morphed into Ida-May herself, carrying an old-fashioned kerosene lamp. “Caleb?” she asked, squinting at him, then nodding in answer to her own question. “Power’s out,” she told him. “And it’s storming to beat all. Why I’ve never seen anything like it. Not here, and I’ve lived here my whole life!” She set the lamp on a high shelf and quickly went to the hearth to light another lamp—one Caleb hadn’t even noticed sitting there. Come to think of it, there was a candelabra on that marble stand in the corner. Caleb went for that, brought it to the fireplace and reached for the matches there on the mantel. He didn’t need to listen to hear the fury of the storm. The wind whistled and moaned, and branches skittered against the windows and walls. He went to the nearest window, parted the curtain and tried to look outside. Dark as pitch. The entire town was black, and even the whiteness of the snow—snow that hadn’t been there last night—didn’t break it. “Looks like the whole town’s blacked out.” Then he turned. “I need to check on Maya.” “Oh, my, yes!” Footsteps thundered, and in moments Bobby reached the bottom of the stairs with Cain at his side. In the fire-glow, the old man’s face looked downright mean. “Dad, here, take the sofa.” Caleb helped his father to a seat, then yanked a blanket off the back and draped it over his shoulders. “It’s colder than the hubs of hell in this place.” Cain growled, pulling the blanket closer and hunching into it. “The power’s out, Mr. Montgomery,” Ida-May explained. “But we have the fireplace. You’ll be warm as toast in no time.” Then she looked at Bobby. “Someone should wake the others, those two lawyer fellows and Ol’ Hank. Have them come down here where it’s warm.” “I’ll get them,” Bobby said. “Along with some more blankets.” “Why’s the power out?” Cain demanded. “And what’s that infernal racket?” Then, blinking, he looked toward the windows. There was snow piling in their corners. He sent a startled look at Caleb. “Snowstorm? Here?” “Yeah, the whole town is without power, by the looks of things.” Caleb tried the telephone, but there was only dead air. He clicked the cutoff several times, to no avail. Then he went to the foot of the stairs and called up them, “Bobby, bring your cell phone down.” Cain was shaking his head. “How bad is it out there, son?” “I don’t know, Dad.” The old man pursed his lips. “That Brand girl…she shouldn’t be out there without heat, or even a telephone.” “I know.” “I have a radio, some batteries. I’ll get them,” Ida-May said, and taking one of the lamps, she hurried away. Caleb went to the door, yanked his coat off the rack and pulled it on. “I’m gonna take a look outside. Maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds.” He stepped out onto the porch, pulling the door closed behind him. The howling there was louder, almost deafening, and a rhythmic thumping worried him. He pulled up his collar and went to the door, opened it. The wind hit it, yanked it from his hand and slammed it against the wall. Caleb ducked his head, brought his hands up in front of his face and, squinting, stepped out onto the stoop. Icy barbs of snow slashed at his face like razors. The snow on the ground was level with the top step and still coming. He tried to see up and down the road, but only shadowy drifts looking like miniature mountains and wind-driven snow were visible. Everything was covered, every rooftop and porch, every vehicle and tree. Telephone poles, those he could make out in the darkness, were tilted and leaning. Wires, laden with snow, drooped low. He hurried back onto the porch and forced the door closed against that insistent wind. It was an effort, but he managed it. He took off his coat, shook the snow off it, stomped off his shoes and went back inside. “It’s a freaking nightmare out there. A full blown blizzard.” His father and Bobby were pushing all the chairs nearer the fireplace. Martin and Jacob Levitz, Caleb’s lawyers, stood huddled over the radio as Ida-May turned the dial from static to static. The boarding house’s permanent resident, a grizzled fellow Caleb only knew as “Ol’ Hank,” sat in a rocker looking confused. Finally Ida’s radio dial hit paydirt. “…the unexpected, blizzard is raging through Big Falls and surrounding areas with winds up to sixty-five miles per hour and temperatures well below freezing. Twenty-four inches of snow have already been dumped in the area, with another eighteen inches possible before morning. Residents are advised to remain in their homes if at all possible. Use fireplaces, woodstoves, kerosene heaters if you have them. If not, light all the burners on your propane or natural gas ranges. If you have none of those, then you need to dress warmly, stay dry and keep moving until daylight. All roads are closed. Emergency personnel cannot get through. Phone service is out in most of the county, and widespread power outages have been reported, though the full extent of them is not known at this time. Rescue personnel will be out in force at dawn, when this freak storm is expected to abate. If you need emergency assistance, hang a red flag from a front window or door of your home.” Caleb swallowed hard and looked at his father. “I have to get to Maya.” “Son, they said to wait until dawn.” He glanced at the old-fashioned pendulum clock on Ida-May’s mantel. “It’s only five or six hours away, at the most. Surely she’ll be all right until then.” He met his father’s eyes. “What if she isn’t?” “You could get killed out there in this mess. It’s a good five miles out to the Brand farm.” “Dad, the nurse we saw yesterday predicted she’d give birth within forty-eight hours. Anything could be happening out there.” “Come on, Caleb, what makes you think—” “I don’t know. I don’t know. I just…I feel it in my gut. I have to get out there.” He paused, searching his father’s face. “What if it was my mother out there? What would you do, Dad?” Thinning his lips, the old man nodded. “All right.” Then he turned. “Caleb’s going to need flashlights, with good batteries, and some damn warm clothes.” “Flashlight, hell,” Ol’ Hank grumbled. “What the boy needs is one o’ them there snow machines. You know, like Joe Petrolla’s got.” Caleb blinked and turned slowly to Hank. “A snowmobile?” It couldn’t be. Who would have a snowmobile in Oklahoma? “Yep, that’s what I mean. A sno-MO-bile.” “Hank, does this Joe…fellow live near here?” “Lives a half mile south. Turn right at the light, if you can find the light—it’s the only light in town, you know. Turn right onto Oak Street. It’s the first house on the left.” “I know where that is,” Caleb said, remembering every trip through this town. Picturing the street in his mind, hoping to hell he could find it in the pitch dark, in a blizzard. “Caleb, there are guardrails along the edge of the road between here and there,” Ida-May said. “Only on the left hand side, though, cause that’s where the steeper drop is. You go out, and you find those guardrails. Let ‘em guide you so you don’t get off track. Hold right on to ‘em, till you get to the traffic light. You hear?” He nodded. “That’s good advice, Ida-May, thank you.” She nodded, picking up a lamp. “Now you come on upstairs with me. My late husband’s clothes are still packed in the closet. We’ll get you bundled up proper.” Chapter 15 The sounds of thundering feet in the upstairs hallway of the Brand farmhouse, immediately following Maya’s shout, were loud enough to drown out the noise of the storm outside. In between the pounding feet, there were bangs and bumps and crashes, and voices asking what was wrong with the lights, and more rattling and clanking, and more footfalls. It only went on for a matter of perhaps two minutes, but Maya felt as if it was taking her family hours to complete the simple task of getting from their rooms to hers. But then they were all stumbling through the bedroom door. Selene in her floor-length black silk nightgown looked even more like a Gothic heroine due to the black wrought iron candelabra she carried, with its spiderweb design. Her silvery hair spilled over her shoulders, and she looked so damn slender Maya suddenly wanted to growl at her. Right behind her came Mel, with a baseball bat in one hand and a flashlight in the other. She wore flannel pajamas, and her short dark hair stuck up in several directions. A fighting mad hen with wet feathers. She made Maya want to laugh. Behind her, Vidalia burst in, wearing her red satin bathrobe with the black lace collar and cuffs. She carried an old tin and glass hurricane lamp, its globe in need of cleaning, but it gave off some light all the same. Her masses of raven curls were bound in one long braid that twisted down her back. The fourth one in was Kara. She had no light and came bursting into the room so fast she ran into Vidalia, who bumped into Mel, who shouldered Selene, who fell onto the bed and managed not to set the blankets on fire with the candles. There were several “oomphs” and “ughs,” and then Kara said, “Sorry. What’s going on?” “Power’s out.” “Big snowstorm.” “Maya yelled.” Three voices gave three answers. Then Maya gave the fourth. “I’m in labor.” There was one brief moment of stunned silence, and then everyone started bustling at once. Kara muttered something about boiling water, and Mel said something about dialing 911, and Selene said, “I think I have a spell for this somewhere!” Then Vidalia shouted, just once. “Stop!” And everyone went still and silent “That’s better. Now calm down, all of you. Mel, take this lantern, bundle yourself thoroughly, go on out to the barn and get the generator fired up.” She handed the hurricane lamp to Mel. “Dress warm, now; There’s no big hurry. First babies take their time. Kara, you go on downstairs and call Caleb over at Ida-May’s. Tell him it’s time. And, Selene, you go on out with Mel and start up the van. Pull it right up to the door here. We’ll let it get nice and warm.” She smiled and took Selene’s candles, setting them on the bedside stand. “You’ll find some more lamps and candles in the kitchen closet, third shelf. Matches with them, as always. Go on now. I’ll stay here and mind your sister.” Nodding, they shuffled out, Mel’s flashlight guiding the way. Maya tried to slow her breathing, tried to be calm. It wasn’t easy. She was actually trembling. Drawing a breath, she sat up and flung back the covers. “I’m soaking wet,” she said. “I think my water broke.” “Not to worry, hon. I’ll just get you some clean, dry things.” Vidalia went to the dresser, pulling open the top drawer, and hauling out an oversized flannel nightgown with pink flowers all over it. “That thing’s big enough to shelter the homeless,” Maya moaned. “And just think, this will be the last night you’ll need to wear it. Come on, now, up on the edge of the bed.” Maya moved with no small effort, and her mother helped her peel off her wet nightgown. She brought a washcloth and towels for Maya to wash herself up, and helped her into the clean, warm nightie. Then she wrapped her in the extra blanket and set her in a chair beside the bed. It took all of five minutes. And then the next contraction came, and it pulled tight, and Maya wrapped her arms around herself and bowed her head, and made a sound from down deep in her chest. Vidalia was peeling the wet blankets and sheets off the bed, but she stopped, and her head came up. “Is that the second contraction?” “Mmm.” Maya managed that and nothing more, but accompanied it with a fierce nod. “And the first was when you called out?” “After,” Maya told her. And she knew damn well it hadn’t been very long. She pried her eyes open, saw her mother look at the wind-up clock on the bedside stand. She didn’t look away until Maya sighed her relief and sat a little straighter. Her mother finished stripping the bed, carried the bundle of covers to the bathroom and came back with fresh linens. How she managed to be so fast and efficient in almost total darkness was beyond Maya. She thought her mother could probably do just about anything. Thank God she was here! “There now,” Vidalia said. “I’ll throw fresh blankets on there, and it will be all ready and waiting for you when we come home from the hospital.” Maya licked her lips. “Dammit, I was supposed to get married today,” she moaned. “Watch your mouth, dear.” “I don’t want my babies illegitimate.” “Oh, for heaven’s sake, child, it’s the twenty-first century. What kind of a modern woman are you if you still think a baby needs its father’s name to be considered legitimate? I mean, really, who made that rule? When did the mother’s name become so unimportant?” “Mom, this isn’t exactly the time for feminism or politics.” A throat cleared, and Maya looked to the doorway, seeing Kara and Selene standing there, looking frightened. “Um…Mom, can we talk to you a minute? Out here?” Kara asked. . Vidalia lifted her brows. Maya held up a hand. “No. Whatever’s wrong, you spit it out right here, right now. I’ve got a right to know.” Kara looked at Maya. Then she looked at Vidalia. Vidalia heaved a mighty sigh, and gave a nod. “Go on, what is it?” “Mom, there’s a blizzard going on out there. No power, no phones, at least two feet of snow piled up, and some of the drifts out there are higher than my head. Wind’s blowing something fierce. I can’t even see from the house to the barn.” Frowning, Vidalia went to the window, parted the curtain. “Where’s Melusine?” “She went out anyway. Bundled up and said she thought she could make it to the barn, get the generator started,” Selene said softly. “We told her not to go, but you know Mel.” “Lord have mercy,” Vidalia whispered. Maya bit her lip, but the cry was wrung from her anyway. Tears sprang to her eyes this time, the pain was so intense. Her sisters huddled around her, and Vidalia looked at the clock. “Four minutes,” she said. Shaking her head slowly, she looked at the ceiling. “Lord, if you’re still owin’ me any favors, now would be a fine time to pay up on ‘em. “Then, she stood straighter, lifted her chin. “All right, all right, we have what we have, we may as well deal with it. Kara, get that mattress cover from the hall closet, and get it onto this bed. Bring extra blankets, too. Selene, did you gather up the lamps and candles?” “They’re right here. I brought the whole box.” As she spoke, she turned back into the hallway, bent to pick up a large cardboard box and brought it into the bedroom. Vidalia went to the round pedestal table by the window and, taking the tablecloth by its edges, gathered it at the top, lifting a dozen framed photos, trinkets and knick-knacks all at once. She set them in an out-of-the way corner. “I want you to put every one of those lights right here, in this bedroom window, and fire them up. Tie back the curtains, well out of the way. We’ll need the light to work by, and if they’re bright enough, they might help Mel keep her bearings.” “What if they don’t, Mom?” Selene was already unloading candles and kerosene and oil lamps from the box onto the table. “Don’t you worry, Selene. Vidalia Brand is not going to let any blizzard take one of her girls. Now you just do what I told you, quick as you can. There’s work to be done. I need rubbing alcohol, scissors, that ball of string from Maya’s sewing basket….” Caleb thanked God for Ida-May’s suggestion about clinging to the guardrails at least a hundred times before he made it to the traffic light. The snow was blinding, the wind constantly driving his body off track. He could have veered off course and not even known it. It was impossible to tell the road from the ditches. There was nothing but snow. White, ice-cold snow, crotch-deep and stubborn as hell. With every step he took, his legs and borrowed boots were pushing massive amounts of the stuff. It was unbelievable. He had to let go of the guardrail and cross the street now. The rail was on the left-hand side, and the street he wanted was on the right. He turned, aimed the flashlight Ida-May had given him, hoping to pinpoint a spot on the other side so he could have something to aim for. But the light couldn’t cut through the wall of slanting snow. He started forward anyway, but a gust caught him and sent him stumbling sideways. He fell over, snow in his face, even inside the fur-trimmed hood of the late innkeeper’s parka. Shaking himself, Caleb rose to his hands and knees, got slowly to his feet. He was off track, turned around already. He’d lost his sense of which way he’d been facing, which way he wanted to go. Tipping his head back, he turned in a slow circle, aiming the flashlight upward, until finally he saw it reflected back at him from the traffic light above. And when he found it, he realized he could just manage to make out the shapes of the cables that held it suspended above the street. He’d been on the left, so the shortest stretch of cable was where he’d been. The longest stretch was a map pointing the way to the other side of the road. Bowing against the wind, he walked, stopping every three or four steps to look up at the traffic light and its cables to keep his bearings. And eventually he reached the spot where the cable ended. Again he shone the light. What now? Nothing to go by, no guardrails. He battled his way forward, facing directly into the biting wind now, took a few steps, then a few more. And at last his light gleamed on what turned out to be the reflective numbers on the door of a house. He was looking for the first house on the left. Joe Petrolla’s place. He didn’t know if this was the first house, or if it were on the right or the left. It was as close as he could guess, though. His entire body shaking, he managed to get up the sidewalk to the front door, and then he banged as hard as the oversized mittens would allow. It was only moments before the door opened and a man in a plaid housecoat pulled him inside, then slammed the door closed behind him. “Great jumpin’ Jehoshaphat, who in their right mind would be out on a night like this? You all right, fella?” Shivering, Caleb yanked off the mittens, so he could loosen the strings that held the hood—no easy task, since they were caked with snow and ice. But after a few seconds his cold fingers managed to accomplish it, and he pushed the hood down. “I’m Caleb—” “I know who you are!” the man said. “Honey, it’s that politician fella from the newspapers. The one who’s gonna marry Maya Brand!” Caleb hadn’t noticed the woman huddled near a pot-bellied wood stove on the other side of the room. He did now. “Well, I’ll be,” she said. “Listen, I don’t have a lot of time to explain, but I’m looking for Joe Petrolla. Are you him?” The man frowned and shook his head. “No. Name’s Cooper. Tom Cooper. This is my wife, Sarah.” “How far am I from this Petrolla’s house?” The man scratched his head, looked at his wife. “Only Petrolla I ever knew moved to Texas five years back,” the wife said. Caleb closed his eyes, lowered his head. “Must have been some important, to bring you clear out here on a night like this,’’ Tom Cooper said. “It is important. The roads are blocked, power’s out, as you probably already know, and the phones are dead. Maya is out there at the farmhouse, and I don’t have any way of even knowing if she’s all right.” He bit his lip. “Just yesterday a nurse predicted she’d have the babies within a day or two at most.” “Someone ought to go on out there and check on her,” Tom Cooper said slowly. His wife, who’d crossed the room, smacked him on the arm. “Well what did you think this young man was doing, Thomas, taking a moonlight stroll?’’ She rolled her eyes and looked at Caleb. “What did you want from this Petrolla, anyway?” “Ol Hank, at the boarding house, told me the guy had a snowmobile. I thought I’d stand a better chance of making it out to the farm if I could borrow it.” She sighed heavily. “Well, we don’t have a snowmobile.” “You’d never make it on a snowmobile in this storm anyway,” her husband said. Then the wife’s head came up. “Could you make it with the bulldozer, Tom?” Tom blinked twice and turned a horrified stare at his wife. “What the—do you think I’d just hand over—that thing cost more than this house, woman!” “Tom’s in the construction business,” she said, as if that explained his reaction. “His equipment is as precious to him as if it was attached.” She turned a narrow glare on Tom. “But there is a pregnant woman and twin babies at stake here, so of course he’ll realize there’s only one right thing to do.” Cooper set his jaw and shook his head. “Mr. Cooper, you said you knew who I was,” Caleb told the man. “So that must mean you know what I’m worth.” The man’s brows drew together in a brief frown, then rose as his mind processed this new data. “Tom, please…if you help me tonight, I’ll buy you a brand-new dozer tomorrow. Any kind, any size, any price, you name it.” Tom Cooper rubbed his chin. “Don’t need a dozer,” he said slowly. “Got one.” Then, tilting his head to one side, he said, “Could use a backhoe, though.” “Deal. You have my word, and your wife is our witness. The minute the roads are cleared, you go out and you order the biggest, shiniest backhoe in existence, and I’ll foot the bill.” Caleb thrust out a hand. “Deal?” Tom pursed his lips, then reached out and shook on it. Turning, he said, “Hon, I’m gonna need my wool union suit and my Carhartt overalls.” “Hey, wait a minute. I didn’t say anything about you going with me,” Caleb said. “It’s not safe out there.” Tom lifted his brows. “You ever run a dozer, mister?” Caleb shook his head. “Didn’t think so. I’ll be ready in ten minutes.” He glanced at the window, shook his head. “Nope, you’d have never made it out there on a snowmobile. Never.” “I wanted to do this in the hospital! I wanted a freaking epidural!” Maya’s voice carried all through the house. But as the contraction eased and she relaxed back on the pillows, her focus changed again. “How long has it been?” “Only an hour,” Vidalia said. “Mom, you gotta go after Mel. Dammit, if I could, I’d go myself.” “Mel’s the toughest of any of us,” Vidalia said. She couldn’t hide her fear from Maya, though, or from anyone else. It showed on her face. She was terrified for Melusine. “Let me go. Mom, she’s right. We have to get to Mel,” Kara said. “I can do it,” Selene put in. “You have to let one of us try, Mom.” Vidalia looked again at the window. “Just give her a few more minutes. I don’t want to risk either of you getting lost out there.” She wiped the sweat from Maya’s brow with a soft cloth. Kara had brought up the small portable kerosene burning heater from the basement, and it was almost too warm in the small bedroom now. Or maybe it only seemed that way to Maya. She clasped her mother’s hand. “You have to let one of them go, Mom. Mel might be in trouble.” “Maya—” “Listen…oh, hell….” The pain was coming again, she clenched her jaw and her fists, and spoke through the pain. “Tie a rope…to the porch rail. Tie…the other end…around her waist.” Vidalia nodded hard. “Do your breathing, Maya. Come on, breathe through it.” She panted out the breaths as she’d been taught, while her mother joined her. When it passed, Vidalia stroked her hair. “Good girl, you’re doing fine, honey.” Then she turned. “Your sister’s right. Kara, I want you to get the rope from the hall closet. Tie one end around your waist and the other to the porch rail. Go out as far as you can reach and see if there’s any sign of Mel. Bundle yourself, girl. Cover every bit of skin, take the flashlight and don’t linger. You get out there, and if you don’t see her, you get right back in.” “Why not me?” Selene demanded. “Because you’re younger and you’re smaller. The wind would whip you around like a dandelion seed. I want you to stay on this end, every bit as bundled as Kara. You keep watch that the rope doesn’t come loose. And don’t you even think of leaving that porch, you understand me?” Selene scowled, but nodded. She moved to the head of the bed and leaned over to kiss Maya’s cheek. “Be okay, hon. I won’t be long.” “Hey, I’ve got your childbirth herbs in my pillowcase, your protection incense burning and your power stone being crushed to dust in my fist, sis. What could go wrong?” Kara came to the other side. “Will you two be okay without us?” she asked. “Mom’s done this a few times, don’t forget,” Maya said breathlessly. “Go on, bring Mel back.” Kara nodded, and she and Selene hurried out of the room. Another pain hit, and Maya’s head came off the pillow at the intensity of it “Is it supposed to hurt this much?” she growled. “Breathe, baby. That’s it. You trust me, when we ask you about this later, you’re gonna tell us it was nothing at all. This part leaves your mind like it never happened.” Panting through clenched teeth, Maya said, “That’s bull.” “If it were bull, darlin’, you’d be an only child.” Vidalia smiled gently at her. “In fact, I think everyone would be. Well, everyone except for twins and triplets and such special little angels as those.” The pain ebbed. Maya stopped panting, blew a sigh, dropped her head to the pillows once more. “Can you see out the window, Mom?” “It’s damn near black as pitch,” Vidalia said, but she went to the window all the same and stood looking out “Well now, wait a minute…what in the world?” “What is it?” Maya twisted her head to try to see, but couldn’t. “Why…there’s a light, way off to the north. Looks to be coming this way, too. Who on earth…?” “Is it Mel? Maybe she got turned around and wandered—” “No, it’s too far away to be Mel. Besides, that little flashlight wouldn’t shine so far, not in this weather.” Maya closed her eyes. Maybe it was Caleb. God, she wanted him so much right now. And it made no damn sense whatsoever, but there it was. He’d been her first thought when she’d felt the initial pangs. And he’d been on her mind constantly ever since. She’d been lying here foolishly fantasizing that he would show up, like some knight in shining armor. That he would fight his way through a storm that even emergency workers couldn’t penetrate just to be with her. She kept envisioning him bursting through the bedroom door. She was hopeless. If he had a clue how she really felt about him, he would probably take his offer of marriage and run screaming back to Tulsa just as fast as his feet could take him. She’d always been so practical. When had she turned into this emotional, needy, lovesick basket case? But she knew the answer to that. She’d been that way since she first laid eyes on Caleb Montgomery. And she didn’t think there was any cure in sight. And yes, she needed him tonight, and no, he wasn’t there. But she knew now that she couldn’t judge him by that. If he knew what was happening, he would be there. If there was a way to get there. His not being there didn’t mean he would turn out to be a man like her father was, or that he would let her down or walk out on her children. It didn’t mean that at all. “Whoever it is, they’re coming this way,” Vidalia said. “I hope it’s a team of paramedics with radios and a whole suitcase full of drugs,” she said, as yet another contraction tightened its fist around her. “You are such a liar,” her mother told her. “You hope it’s Caleb.” She licked her lips, shook her head slowly. “And frankly, daughter, so do I.” The bulldozer moved at the speed of molasses, and with every snowdrift it crushed beneath its tracks, Caleb felt more certain that something was wrong. Terribly wrong. His stomach was tied up in knots, and the cold wasn’t the only thing causing his shivering. What if something happened to the babies? What if something happened to Maya? A shaft of red-hot pain sliced right through his frozen body to lay open his heart. Damn, he was a mess, wasn’t he? “Shouldn’t we see the house by now?” He leaned close to Tom Cooper, and shouted the question. Between the noise of the dozer and that of the storm, he wasn’t sure the man could hear him even then. Besides, they were both wrapped in hoods and scarfs and a solid half-inch layer of snow at this point Cooper turned slightly and yelled back, “Maybe. If there were any lights on.” Hell, if there were no lights on, then what the hell did that indicate? Nothing good, he bet. A brief image of Maya lying frozen in her bed, still and white, her skin like glass, crystals forming on her eyelashes, floated into his mind. Like Sleeping Beauty, he saw her. He squeezed his eyes tight and gave his head a hard shake to rid himself of that image. She was okay. She had to be okay, and the babies, too. Cooper held up one mitted paw, sort of pointing. Caleb squinted into the cutting snow to try to see what he did and finally made out a dim speck of light in the distance. “Go toward it!” he yelled. It probably was an unnecessary instruction. The dozer belched and bucked, inch by inch, nearer the light. And the light didn’t move. More and more it seemed to be coming from ground level, and the fear in Caleb’s belly churned harder. Then the spotlights mounted on the dozer were pointing directly at the smaller light so it vanished altogether. But the edge of the house came into view, and he could see lights at last in one of the upper windows. “Thank God,” he whispered. “Thank God.” At least it looked as if someone was alive in there. The dozer rocked closer, and its lights picked out a lone form, struggling against the wind…with what looked like a rope tied around it. Turning to face the dozer, the form waved its arms frantically, held its hands flat out, made a pushing motion. “Stop, Tom,” Caleb shouted. “Shut her down, but keep the lights on.” Cooper did so. Caleb climbed off the machine, amazed at how difficult it was to bend or unbend anything. Every joint in his body seemed to have frozen over. His legs sank hip deep in snow as soon as he hit, but he waded forward, fumbling in his big pocket for the flashlight, grabbing it as clumsily as a bear cub in boxing gloves, and finally flicking it on. The figure with the rope around it was bundled beyond recognition, until he got all the way up in her face. Then her eyes, peering over the top of a scarf gave her away as a Brand woman, and her height told him which one. “Kara? What are you doing out here?” he said, loudly, over the wind. “Caleb?” she asked. “Oh, thank God!” She hugged him, totally ineffective in all the layers of clothing. “What’s wrong?” he shouted again, clasping her shoulders, and backing her up just a few inches. “It’s Mel! She went out to the barn—for the generator—but she never came back.” His heart did a little spasm in his chest. “How long?” he shouted. “Almost two hours!” He didn’t like it. Damn, Mel out in this for two hours? Why the hell hadn’t someone gone out after her sooner? “Go back to the house,” he yelled. “I’ll find her.” Kara shook her head. “Not without my sister!” He started to get mad, then remembered the faint light he’d seen before. It hadn’t been Kara’s. It had been further out than that. He patted Kara’s shoulders. “Wait here!” Then he dragged himself back out to the dozer, where Tom Cooper waited. “Turn off the lights and come with me. Cooper cut the lights, clambered down, and the two of them hunched their backs against the storm and made their way through the snow once more. When they reached Kara, Caleb said, “I think I saw her. I’m going out. You two stay right here. If I’m not back in ten minutes, Cooper, you take this girl back to the house, whether she wants to go or not. It’s at the other end of her rope.” Cooper nodded. Kara argued, but Caleb didn’t take time to listen. He started out through the drifts, praying to God he would see that little beam of light again. And then he did. Ten feet from the barn, with an inch of snow already covering it. He raced closer, dropped to his knees, and pawed the snow away rapidly, digging out the light, and the gloved hand that clung to it. Mel’s hand. Then her arm, shoulder and the rest of her. Lifting her upper body, he shook her. “Melusine! Mel, come on! Talk to me!” There was a very slight movement of her lips. Maybe a moan, but if so, it was lost in the wind. At least he knew she was alive. He gathered her up into his arms, turned and started back the way he’d come. He homed in on the glow spilling from the upstairs window and trudged with everything he had. He reached Kara and Tom Cooper with what felt like the last ounce of strength in his body, so cold he couldn’t even feel his hands or feet anymore. Cooper took Mel from his arms, turned toward the house. Caleb took a step toward it, as well, and Kara put a hand on his chest to stop him. “We still need the generator,” she said. Cooper turned back. “Don’t walk it, Caleb! Take the dozer. No one out there to run over by accident now!” With a sigh of relief, he nodded. “Get back to the house, Kara. I’ll be in with the genny in a few minutes.” She looked him in the eye and said, “Hurry, Caleb. We need you in there.” Then she turned and trudged away. In only seconds she was swallowed up by the storm. Drawing himself up, Caleb started toward the dozer. Chapter 16 He hadn’t thought about how he was supposed to get the generator to the bulldozer. The thing was huge, and it would have taken two or three men at the very least, to pick it up. But he discovered chains on the back of the dozer, attached them to the machine, and even thought to make sure it had gasoline in its tank, so he wouldn’t have to make this trek again to syphon some from one of the cars. The tank was full, though, so he remounted the bull-dozer and ground it into motion. And he thanked his lucky stars Tom Cooper hadn’t just handed it over earlier tonight or he’d never have gotten here. He’d been watching for five miles, and he still just barely managed to make it go where he wanted. There was a definite knack to this thing. He dragged the generator right up to the front door, then shut the dozer down, got off, and, finally, after what seemed like an endless, freezing journey, he stumbled on frozen stumps into the house. Cooper met him at the door “I’ll start the genny and get her plugged in the second I get thawed out here. You’d best get out of those things. You’re needed elsewhere.” He thought of Mel and rapidly, clumsily, started tugging at the snow-encrusted scarf and mittens. The parka’s zipper was frozen, and there was so much snow frozen to his legs that he could barely tell where the boots ended and the overalls began. Snow scattered everywhere, but eventually he got shed of most of the layers and limped into the living room on numb feet. Mel lay on the sofa, her clothes on the floor, her body wrapped in blankets. Kara and Selene worked fiercely, rubbing her hands and feet. Mel’s hair was wet but thawed out. The fireplace burned full blast, giving off blessed heat that began to make his own hands and feet burn as the feeling came back to them. “How is she?” he asked, leaning over the other two. Mel’s eyes opened. Her teeth were chattering and her body shaking, but she managed a weak smile. “I’ll b-b-be fine. Thanks t-t-to you.” “Hey, that’s what brothers-in-law are for, isn’t it?” “Caleb…I…need to tell you something.” Mel was so cold her teeth were chattering. “I…the photograph. It…was me. I sent it.” He leaned closer to her, looked right into her eyes and said, “Then I know who to thank, don’t I?” Her smile was wavering, but heartfelt, he thought. Then she frowned. “W-what are you waiting for? You should be upstairs,” she told him. Caleb frowned. “Upstairs?” Then he glanced at the other two. But before either of them could speak, a heart-ripping shriek tore through the house and right into his soul. He thought it might have cracked a few windows. A rush of dizziness hit him so fast, he almost fell down. “Maya?” he asked stupidly. “You better get up there, Caleb,” Selene said. “We’ll take care of Mel.” Caleb didn’t want to think what he was thinking, but he didn’t take time to verify it. Instead he lunged to the stairs, and his half-functioning, damp sock-clad feet stumbled and slammed into steps on the way up. They would hurt like hell later, when the feeling came back. “God, Mamma, why does it have to hurt so much!” Maya cried brokenly. He lurched down the hall, burst into her bedroom and stared in shock at the scene being played out in front of him. Maya lay propped up on pillows. Her knees were bent and pointed at the ceiling, and her bare feet pressed down into the mattress. Her mother, looking about as terrified as Caleb felt, was at the foot of the bed. Then, looking up at her daughter, pasting a calm and confident smile in place, Vidalia Brand said, “All right now, honey, it’s time. When the next contraction comes, I want you to push.” For one brief instant he thought he might pass out cold. He shook that away and thought he might throw up instead, from sheer terror. But he shook that off, too. The look of unmitigated fear on Maya’s pale face was all it took to snap him out of it. It was fairly easy to size up the situation. The babies were coming, and they were coming now. There was no choice about it. His own fears didn’t matter. Hers did. His job here was to get her through this. Not add his own worries to hers. “Now, Maya Brand,” he said, “I thought I told you I wanted to be in the delivery room. What are you thinking, trying to start without me?” Maya’s head turned fast, and her eyes met his. And he saw something that almost floored him all over again. The look in her eyes when she saw him standing there…he’d never seen anything like that before. He’d never felt so wanted, or so needed. Or so loved. He felt himself grow an inch or two taller. “Caleb,” she whispered, sounding exhausted already. “My God, you’re here. You’re really here.” “I’m here.” He moved closer, trusting his legs not to buckle. Maya’s eyes widened. “Caleb, my sister…Mel…she’s—” “Safe and sound on the sofa downstairs. Kara and Selene have everything in hand down there. And a friend of mine ought to have that generator running in a few minutes or so. I want you to stop worrying about all that. You’ve got plenty to do right up here.” She heard his voice and thought it was her mind, weaving more fantasies. She’d been lying in the bed, in pain, terrified for her babies, for her sisters, for herself, wishing with everything in her that Caleb would walk through her door and somehow make her believe everything was going to be okay. So powerful was the image in her mind that when she turned her head and saw him there, she almost didn’t believe he was real. And then she did, and everything she’d been feeling for him seemed to spill from her pores and beam from her eyes. His face changed—something moved over his features. But she couldn’t tell what. Then he was moving closer, and she noticed his odd gait—he was limping. “Caleb, what’s wrong?” He shook his head, pausing to warm his hands over the small portable heater. “Nothing a little warming up won’t fix,” he told her. Vidalia frowned at him. “How in the world did you manage to get out here, Caleb Montgomery?” He winked. “Would you believe I hitched a ride on a sleigh with a guy in red and eight tiny reindeer?” “It’s a day early for that,” Vidalia said. Then Maya saw her mother look down at Caleb’s feet, saw her brows draw together in concern. She started to twist around to have a look for herself, but another contraction hit. Caleb came to the bedside, and the second his hand was within reach, she clutched it in hers. Cold. His hand was still so cold. “Time to push, honey,” her mother told her. “You remember the drill.” “Come on,” Caleb said, sliding an arm around her shoulders to brace her up. His face was close to hers. “Push now. That’s it, one, two, three, four…” When Caleb reached ten, she stopped pushing. Rested. He let her lie back and stroked her hair away from her face. Vidalia ran to the bedroom door and shouted down the stairs. “We need a bowl of ice chips up here,” she called. By the time she was back in position again, another pain had Maya in its grip, and she pushed again while Caleb held her and counted. Selene arrived with the requested bowl of ice chips and set them on the bedside stand. In her other hand she held a pair of wool socks. “Put these on, Caleb,” she said, handing them to him. “We warmed them by the fire for you. Your feet look about frozen.” “That was sweet of you. Thanks.” He tugged the damp socks off, and quickly pulled the warm ones on, just barely finishing before the next contraction came. It went on and on. Caleb holding her, counting with her, wiping the sweat away from her brow, feeding her ice chips in between. She pushed until she thought she couldn’t push anymore. She felt her body being torn apart. And then, finally, a rush of relief. She fell back on the bed, breathless and limp. Panting, she looked at Caleb, and saw his gaze directed toward her mother, at the bed’s foot. His look was intense, and for the first time, she saw the fear in his eyes showing through the confident facade. The only sound from the foot of the bed was that of her mother’s hurried movements. “Mamma?” Maya whispered. She tried to lift her head from the pillows to see. Her heart seemed to slow to a stop in her chest, and she held her breath. Caleb’s hand tightened around hers. Then, softly, a hoarse and snuffly cry. Like the bleat of a newborn lamb. And then her mother was at her side, holding a tiny, messy, squirming, red-faced bundle, wrapped in a small blanket. “A boy,” Vidalia said. “Your son, Caleb.” And she handed the baby into Caleb’s waiting arms. Maya couldn’t take her eyes off the baby. Her mother helped her sit up farther, plumping the pillows behind her, which she’d pretty well flattened, as Caleb sat on the edge of the bed holding the baby. He hadn’t said a word. Not a word. As soon as Maya was upright, Caleb gently placed the baby into her arms. Filmy, unfocused eyes squinted at her, and when she touched the tiny hand, it gripped her finger and her chest contracted with a kind of wonder and joy she’d never experienced. Lifting her head, she looked at Caleb. His face was wet. His eyes, his cheeks. He met her gaze, and smiled at her. “My God, Maya, look what you did. You’re…incredible.” And then, leaning closer, he brushed his lips over hers, very gently. She closed her eyes, sighed very softly. His hand threaded in her hair, and he kissed her again. Then he drew back and just stared at her, as if he’d never quite seen her before. She looked at the baby. “Cain Caleb Montgomery the Fourth,” she said softly. “Such a big name for such a little thing.” Caleb lowered his forehead to hers, and the tears on her cheeks mingled with those on his. The sound of a motor reached Maya, and only then did she tear her eyes away from her baby. Then the lights flickered on, blinked off, came on again, and stayed this time. “Thank the Lord,” Vidalia said. “Now, darlin’, if it’s okay, can I take my grandson for just a bit?” Maya nodded, and Caleb gathered the baby from her arms and handed him carefully to Vidalia. She turned toward the doorway, and for the first time Maya looked beyond Caleb to see that Kara and Selene were crowded there, peering in. They were both damp eyed, too. “Well come on in here and close the door, this little one needs to be kept very warm just now,” Vidalia said. “Mel’s resting,” Kara explained. “Tom Cooper’s gonna sit with her so we can help out up here.” “I turned the furnace way up, Mom, and I brought diapers and baby clothes, and blankets,” Selene said. “Yeah, and even a little hat.” Kara held up the tiny little cotton skullcap. “They always put hats on them in the hospitals.” Vidalia looked at the baby, obviously not relishing the idea of handing him over. But then another contraction came, and Maya, caught by surprise, cried out. Vidalia shot her a worried glance and handed the newborn off to Selene, complete with a set of instructions, which she spoke rapidly even as she resumed her position at the foot of the bed. “Oh, God, not yet,” Maya moaned. “I can’t do this again.” It hit her that that was exactly what was about to happen. “Yes, you can. Come on, Maya, you can. I know you can,” Caleb told her. Panting, she waited for the pain to pass, then looked up at him. “I need to sit up. I need something to brace against.” He didn’t hesitate. He lifted her shoulders and positioned himself on the bed behind her, just the way they had done at the childbirth class. He bent his knees so she could brace her hands on his thighs, and his chest was solid behind her. “Better?” he asked. She let her head fall back against him and nodded. “I think…oh, God!” “Another one? Okay, okay, it’s all right. Breathe through it.” His hands were on her belly, rubbing circles that were supposed to be soothing. But it was his breath, and his voice, so close to her ear that gave her the most relief, the most comfort. He was here. He was actually here for her, when it had been all but impossible to be. He was not like her father, and he would never be. He might not love her, but he would always, she sensed, be there for her. And for her children. He held her like that all through the wee hours. He breathed with her, talked to her, held her. A few feet away, her sisters took turns holding the baby, their body heat, his incubator. And as the sun came up, breaking through the storm clouds, and climbing steadily higher, Maya pushed with all the strength she had left in her. And finally the second baby emerged into the world. She collapsed against Caleb. And his arms tightened around her. She heard the fear in his voice when he spoke. “Vidalia…? Is he…?” Opening her eyes, Maya looked up at Caleb’s face, seeing the stricken expression. Fear hit her hard, and she shifted her gaze to the foot of the bed, where her mother was working. But she couldn’t see the baby. But then Vidalia smiled, and she knew it was okay. Everything was okay. The baby started to cry gustily as Vidalia wrapped it in a blanket and held it close to her. “You men just tend to jump to conclusions, don’t you?” she asked Caleb as she brought the little bundle and placed it in Maya’s arms. “Your daughter is just fine,” Vidalia whispered. “Oh…a girl?” Maya breathed. “A little girl? Just like Selene said….” “Was there ever any doubt?” Selene asked softly. “Help ought to be here soon. At first light Mr. Cooper headed back to town. Said he’d go straight to the sheriff’s department and let them know the situation.” Maya frowned tiredly. “How was he going to do that?” “Same way he got out here with Caleb,” Kara said. “On his bulldozer.” Maya blinked in shock, tipping her head backward to stare up at Caleb. “You came all the way out here last night on a bulldozer?” He shrugged. “Hey, I was looking for a snowmobile, but I figured I’d better take what I could get.” “But it must have taken over an hour—and in that storm…God, Caleb, it was a crazy thing to do.” “Walking would have been crazier,” he told her. And his eyes got that look again. All…deep and potent. “But I would have, if that was the only way to get to you last night.” Her brows came down. “How did you know?” He shook his head. “I didn’t….I just had a feeling that I had to get here. That you needed me.” “I was sending a telepathic 911,” Selene confessed from across the room. But Caleb’s gaze never moved from Maya’s, as she whispered, “So was I, Caleb. I was wishing for you so much…and you came. You came.” “I always will,” he promised her. And for the first time, she believed it with all her heart. Chapter 17 She’d been resting in the hospital all day. Heck of a way to spend Christmas Eve. Caleb had been in and out a half-dozen times, each time seeming a little more tense. He brought flowers the first time, candy the second, a pair of giant teddy bears the third. He kept saying he had a very busy schedule today, but that he couldn’t stay away from her and the babies for more than a couple of hours at a time. She wished he wouldn’t say things like that unless he really meant them—at least, the way she wanted him to mean them. She was sure he was sincere where the babies were concerned, but she was equally certain he could bear to be away from her just fine, if need be. At any rate, he certainly was heroic. She’d had the TV on for the past hour, and the coverage of the storm told her more than she’d already known about how bad it had been last night. The last time a blizzard of this magnitude had hit Big Falls had been in the latter part of the last century. Caleb had literally risked his life to get to her. Her admiration for him—her love for him—grew even deeper at the knowledge. The door opened, and she looked up, wondering which of her frequent visitors would appear there. Selene, Kara, her mother, Caleb—or Mel, who was in a room down the hall recovering from her brush with hypothermia. Aside from a touch of frostbite, she was going to be just fine. They’d promised she could go home today. Maya and the babies would be released on Christmas morning. But the visitor was none of those people. It was, instead, Cain Caleb Montgomery II. He hesitated in the doorway, peering in at her, leaning on his cane. “I can come back later, if you’re resting,” he said. “No, no, please come in.” He did, his cane thumping the floor with every other step. “Have you seen the babies yet?” He looked at her with a smile…an actual smile. She hadn’t seen one on him until then. “I’ve been in the nursery for the past half hour.” The smile grew. “They let me hold them. I didn’t want to put them down.” “I’m glad I’m not the only one,” she said. “Come in and sit down, Mr. Montgomery.” “Oh, now. You call me Cain.” He sat down, pursed his lips. “Actually, I’m hoping that, down the road, you might want to call me Dad, instead. I mean, you know, since you’re marrying my son.” Her hand touched her chest involuntarily—in response to a small flutter there. “I haven’t called anyone that in years.” “Yes, well…” He cleared his throat. “I owe you an apology, Maya. I came here judging you, insulting you and your family, and the truth was, I was only reacting out of fear that you were going to take my son away from me. Instead, you’ve given me…such a precious gift.” She didn’t know how to respond to that, so she said nothing. “I want you to know that Caleb and I have had a long talk. I’ve told him already that whatever he decides to do or not do with his life is fine with me. Just so long as I have plenty of time with his…his family.” “Oh, my goodness.” She had to dab at her eyes. “That must have meant so much to him. And it does to me, too. Thank you Cain…Dad.” His smile was quick and bright. “Well, I won’t keep you. We have lots to do tonight after all. But um…I have a little gift for you first. Two, actually, but um—” Caleb came in then, glanced at his father, then at Maya, and smiled warmly. “Good, good, you’re here. You should be,” Cain said. “Would you kindly get the package I left outside the door there, son?” Caleb frowned, but did as his father asked. He came back with a huge package wrapped in gleaming gold foil, with elaborate ribbons. “It’s for Maya,” Cain said. Caleb brought the package to her and laid it across her lap on the bed. “My goodness, it’s almost too beautiful to open.” But she opened it anyway. She tore the paper aside and took the cover off the large box it had concealed. And then she felt her mouth fall open and tears spring to her eyes as she stared down at the wedding gown of ivory satin and lace. She looked up at Cain, who hurried forward and took the dress from the box by its shoulders, holding it up so she could see it better. The full skirt spilled free, and Maya caught her breath. “I don’t know what to say. It’s…it’s beautiful. The most beautiful gown I could imagine.” “I knew you were planning to have the ceremony before the birth,” Cain said. “So I thought you probably didn’t have a dress—at least, not one that would fit you now.” “Well, you were right,” Maya said, still admiring the gown. “This was…this was Caleb’s mother’s.” Her gaze shifted to Cain. “Oh…oh, my….” Pushing aside her covers, sending the box and wrappings to the floor, Maya got to her feet, went to the older man and kissed him softly on the cheek. “Thank you. You don’t know how much this means to me.” He grinned and handed Caleb the dress. “I’ll go now, so you can give her the other present.” “Thanks, Dad. Or should I say Grandpa?” “Grandpa is a title I’ll bear with great pride.” He winked at his son and limped out the door, with a decided bounce in his step. Caleb opened the small closet and carefully arranged the dress on a hanger. Then he turned to where Maya was still standing. “You should be lying down. Resting.” “I’ve been lying down all day, Caleb. I’m fine, really.” He smiled. “You sure are.” Feeling her cheeks heat, she averted her face, walked to the chair beside the bed and sat down. Caleb went to the bed, sat on its edge. “I want to talk to you about our…um…our arrangement.” Her head came up fast. “You do?” Worry gnawed at her. Had he changed his mind? Had he decided he didn’t want to marry a woman he didn’t love after all? “Things have changed, Maya. And…well, I just don’t think it would be fair to let you go through with this marriage without being perfectly honest with you.” Lifting her chin, bracing herself, Maya looked him in the eye. “All right. I’m listening.” Drawing a breath, he took her hands in his. “First of all, I’ve decided not to run for the Senate. In fact, I’m pulling out of politics altogether.” It was not what she’d expected to hear. “I thought I’d go into private practice. Open a law office right here in Big Falls. How would you feel about that?” She knew she was gaping, but she couldn’t seem to stop. Shaking herself, she finally let her relief show. “I’d feel…wonderful. God, Caleb, that’s almost everything I’ve been hoping for.” “Really?” He smiled. “Why didn’t you say so?” She shook her head. “I…I didn’t want to start making career decisions for you, Caleb. I don’t have the right to do that.” He came off the bed, still holding both her hands. “You have every right. Maya….” He hesitated, bit his lip. “You said that was almost everything you’d been hoping for. What else was there?” She looked away fast. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter, Caleb.” One hand rose, palm gentle on her cheek, turning her to face him again. “Come on, Maya, tell me the truth. Please. Because…I’m hoping for more, too.” She felt her eyes widen as she searched his. “Caleb?” “I’m in love with you, Maya. I don’t want to marry you for the sake of the babies, or to save your reputation or mine, or anything else. I want to marry you because I don’t ever want to have to spend a day of my life without you. And I’m sitting here like a big idiot hoping to God you feel the same way about me.” Her lips trembled, and tears spilled onto her cheeks. “I do love you, Caleb. I have all along.” He cupped her face and kissed her, long and slow and deeply. And when he straightened away again, he took a small velvet box from his pocket. “This is the other gift Dad mentioned.” He opened the lid to reveal a glittering diamond engagement ring, its large teardrop-shaped stone utterly flawless. “This was my mother’s, as well. And I know she’d want you to wear it.” Taking the ring from its nest, he slipped it onto Maya’s finger. “Will you marry me, Maya? For real?” “Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, Caleb, I will.” He kissed her softly again. “In an hour?” “I…” Her eyes flew open. “An hour?” “What did you think I’d been running around planning for all day?” “But…an hour?” “What’s wrong, darling? Do you need help getting ready that soon?” “Maybe a little,” she said, her tone sarcastic. He grinned at her, gave her a devilish wink and one last kiss, then went to the door and pulled it open. “Would all my pending in-laws please come in now?” One by one, her sisters came in the door. Selene, and then Mel, and then Kara. Her mother came in last and let the door go. “No, no, no. That’s not everybody,” Caleb said, snatching the door before it closed all the way, opening it wide once more. “I said all my pending in-laws.” Several confused frowns were aimed at him. And then it became clear. Edain Brand, the prodigal daughter, walked through the door, looking even more beautiful than she had when she’d left home two years before. “Edie? Oh my God, Edie?” Maya cried. Kara, Selene and Mel mobbed her with hugs, and when they parted, Edie faced Vidalia. Their eyes met, and for just one brief second Maya wondered if the old tension would rise up yet again between them. But then Vidalia smiled and opened her arms, and Edie rushed into them. Maya met Caleb’s eyes across the room. “You did this, didn’t you?” “Merry Christmas,” he said. Edie and Vidalia pulled apart, and Edie went to Maya, hugged her gently, and said, “I can’t believe I’m an aunt twice over.” “It’s so good to have you home, Edie.” “It’s good to be home, hon.” They separated, and again Maya looked toward the door. Caleb blew her a kiss and slipped quietly out of the room. An hour later, Caleb waited in the elaborately decorated hospital chapel as his bride walked toward him. His children were held in the loving arms of their grandmother and grandfather, and every time he looked at them, he felt his chest swell with pride. When he looked at their mother, it was more like awe. He couldn’t believe he’d gotten so lucky. But maybe… maybe luck had nothing to do with it. Selene kept insisting that it was no coincidence that caused him to have a flat tire in front of the OK Corral almost nine months ago. She kept saying it was something far more powerful. Something like fate. When Maya stood beside him and slipped her hand into his, smiling up into his eyes with love shining from hers, he thought maybe his bride’s kid sister was wiser than any of them. He slid a glance toward where Selene was sitting. She gave him a nod as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. Epilogue So that’s the whole story. Well, not the whole story, but that’s how it began. I’m sitting here now on the wide front porch of my log cabin. The snow melted almost before Christmas Day was over; spring came as it always does. From here, I can look down on the farmhouse on the far side of the wildflower-dotted meadow below. It’s within shouting distance. Not that shouting is ever needed. My mom and sisters are up here as often as Caleb and the babies and I are down there. But we always were a close family. Always will be, too. Edie’s still here. She’s been quiet and moody, and I think Mom has been letting her get away with that for the past few months, but her patience is wearing thin. Any day now I expect her to tell Edie enough is enough and it’s time to stop licking her wounds and tell us what went wrong out there in La-La-Land. Something sure did. My dream house is almost exactly the way I pictured it. I say “almost” because I never pictured it this big and sprawling, but I guess that’s what happens when you marry a millionaire. Caleb got rid of the Lexus sports coupe, though. Bought a minivan for me and an Explorer sports utility for him. Eddie Bauer Edition, of course, but that’s okay. He managed to rent office space in town, just around the corner from Sunny’s Place, and he hung up a shingle that says Montgomery Law Office. He takes all kinds of cases—and many of his clients can’t afford to pay him. But he says that, luckily, he can afford to represent them. He’s a hell of a guy, my husband. Here he comes now, walking across the meadow from Mom’s house, a baby in each arm. Look at him, smiling and talking to them as if they can understand every word. Sometimes, the way they look at him, I almost think they can. We wanted to name our little girl after my mom. Vidalia. But Mom insisted we call her Dahlia instead. You know, like the flower. Mom said as much as she might deny it, it wasn’t easy growing up with an onion for a name. As for little Caleb, we call him Cal, just to avoid confusion. Tough having three men in the family with the same name. And Caleb’s father is around enough so that he finally broke down and rented a house in town, so he has a permanent residence out here. He could stay with us when he visits, of course, but he’s too stubborn to want to appear dependent. Still, he’s out here more than he’s in Tulsa. He took Caleb’s decision not to run for office far better than either of us expected him to. The old goat is so madly in love with his grandchildren that there isn’t much Caleb or I can say or do to upset him. But if he brings any more toys to the house, I don’t know where we’ll put them. Caleb’s halfway to the house now. He just looked up and caught my eye. And the breeze is ruffling his hair. Gosh, when he looks at me like that, my stomach still clenches up. I love that man more than I ever thought possible. He healed my old wounds for me…and I like to think I helped mend some of his. And he gave me something more precious than gold—our babies. And his love. And we’re happy—deliriously happy with our little family. And I think we will be for a long, long time. Click here for an excerpt from Edie’s book, Brand New Heartache. The Baddest Virgin in Texas Prologue Little Lash Monroe sat in the hard wooden pew in the front row and listened to his foster father, the Reverend Ezekiel Stanton, pontificate in a loud, booming voice about the wages of sin and the wrath of the Almighty. Hellfire and damnation tended to be at the heart of most of the preacher’s sermons. And Lash, being only nine, supposed one day he’d understand why the bumper sticker on the back of the Reverend Mr. Stanton’s battered pickup truck read God Is Love when he talked about God as if He were a fire-breathing dragon from a horrific fairy tale. His words sent chills down Lash’s spine. And the light in the preacher’s eyes gleamed like...like that new gray-blue cat’s-eye marble Lash had won this morning from Gulliver Scuttle. Lash smiled and tucked his hand into his pocket to feel the cool, smooth marble he’d been gunning for all these weeks. His, at last. Then the smile leaped from his face when the preacher struck his fist hard on the podium in front of him to punctuate the word Vengeance in the quote Lash figured must be his favorite, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” Lash met the preacher’s piercing gaze and forced himself to stop thinking about the marble, and the shooting match this morning, and to pay attention. After all, the preacher wasn’t so bad. Strict, yes, but not mean. It wasn’t his fault Lash was miserable living with him and Missus Olive, who would have blown away in a strong wind or fainted at the sound of a cuss word. Yeah, they were wearing on him some. Especially her, being so helpless and delicate and requiring a houseful of men and boys just to take care of her every little need. Lash had never known a whinier, more dependent woman in his life. But still and all, she was better than his own mom, who’d been drunk most of the time, and even more helpless. So helpless she’d said she couldn’t take care of two boys all alone, and dumped Lash and Jimmy off at a shelter one night. Jimmy had been sent to live with a family in Texas. And Lash had been brought here, to the preacher who wanted plenty of sons, and his wife who was unable to give him any. And really, despite their shortcomings, they’d treated him just swell. It was the boys he couldn’t stand. They were the ones who made his life pure misery in every way they could think of. All older than him, all bigger, and every one of them way meaner. Especially Zane, the oldest, biggest, meanest of them all. Zane was twelve, Jack eleven, and Peter—who claimed his name was really Pedro and that he had a rich uncle in Mexico who would come for him one day—was ten. Peter made them all call him Pedro when the Stantons weren’t within earshot. And if they forgot, they were liable to get clubbed for it. Lash tended to call him Petey, despite the repercussions, just because it bugged the other boy so much. Rich relatives, indeed. The king of beef, Peter said they called his uncle. Sure. The kid was full of blue mud. In comparison to Lash’s measly nine years of age, the other boys were practically grown-ups. They didn’t act that way, though. Lash still had sore ribs from the minor beating they’d given him last week, when Zane ordered Lash to do his share of the chores, and Lash was foolish enough to refuse. He’d ended up doing Zane’s chores anyway, only doing them while hurting like crazy. Next time he’d just agree right off the bat. But he had a feeling that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy Zane. He thought Zane liked tormenting him. It was as this thought entered Lash’s mind that he first felt the itching, creeping sensation around his ankles and calves...and then higher. He dropped one hand to scratch his leg, all the while keeping his eyes respectfully focused on the preacher. But the itch didn’t go away. In fact, it spread higher. And then, all of a sudden, it became a pinching feeling. Lash slapped hard at his legs, jerking his gaze floorward at the same moment. Oddly, he noticed several other members of the congregation itching and slapping themselves, too. And then he saw them. Ants. There must have been a million of ‘em. It looked as if someone had scattered handfuls of them across the floor near the front pew. A hundred of the shiny black buggers—some the size of guinea pigs, Lash noted with alarm—were swarming over his shoes and disappearing beneath the hem of his pant legs. He jumped to his feet, howling out loud and hopping up and down like a Mexican jumping bean, slapping his legs as if they were on fire. And he barely noticed at least six other people doing a similar jig. They looked like Indians from a John Wayne movie doing a war dance before the big shoot-’em-up scene. Mrs. Potter threw her walker so high and so hard that it formed a perfect arch in the air before coming down hard on the three people in the pew behind her. Sally Kenyon was standing in her seat, screaming at the top of her lungs and tugging on her blond ringlets. Girls. Sheesh, did she really think all that fussin’ was going to help anything? Old Leroy LaRue just stood there, stooped as always, nailing ants one by one with his walking stick, just lifting it up and jamming it down, again and again. With his snow-white hair sticking up and his beak of a nose crinkling, he grinned toothlessly. “Gotcha, ya sneaky little buggers!” Bam, bam, bam. “There! Ha! Gotcha!” Bam-bam! “An’ you, too! I see ya sneaking away!” Bam-bam-bam-bam. Lash would’ve laughed at Leroy’s counterattack if he hadn’t been so busy trying to shake the entire ant army out of his pant legs. He managed to kick off his shoes in a frenzied effort to rid himself of the biting little demons. The shoes flew forward, and one hit the Reverend Mr. Stanton square dead center of his forehead. The second one landed on the podium, no doubt leaving a dirty mark all over the fire-and-brimstone sermon the preacher had spent all week composing. Lash barely noticed that the fire and brimstone from the sermon was becoming apparent in the Reverend Stanton’s face. He was too busy hopping on one foot to peel off the other sock and then reversing the procedure. It was only as Lash accomplished this and danced his bare feet away from the platoon of ants trooping over the church floor, that he noticed Zane, sitting safely two rows back. He was doubled over, clutching his spare-tire belly and laughing so hard his face was beet red and tears squeezed from the corners of his eyes. And then Lash’s view was blocked by the members of the congregation, all rising and making their way toward the exits to avoid being attacked by Zane’s killer ants. Safe for the moment, Lash stood there shaking his head. And then a heavy hand clapped down on his shoulder from behind, and he knew darn well whose hand it was. And he also knew he was in major trouble. Because of all the boys in the preacher’s household, Lash was the only one with an ant farm. And even if he denied responsibility for this, it wouldn’t hold water when Zane and Jack and Peter gave their version of things. They’d make sure their stories matched, and they’d make sure Lash was implicated. They always did. “I think,” said the Reverend Mr. Stanton, “that you are going to have some new Bible verses to memorize. Lash glanced up at the preacher, and he could have sworn that behind that weathered, stern face, the preacher was battling against the urge to grin. But he couldn’t be, Lash reasoned. The preacher was too upstanding to find any of this funny. Still, Lash found himself awfully glad that memorizing Bible verses was the most severe punishment in the man’s collection. It wouldn’t be so bad. “How many this time, sir?” Lash asked. The preacher’s bushy brows rose. “For this? Oh, I’d say...a hundred might be sufficient.” “A hundred!” The preacher nodded. “You may recite them before the entire congregation next Sunday—after you’ve delivered your apology to them, of course.” With a heavy sigh, Lash nodded. “Yes, sir.” “I swear, Lash, I’ve never come upon a boy with such a love of mischief-making as you. But I’m bound to reform you, son. Or die trying.” His hand, leathery and firm, gave Lash’s shoulder a squeeze. He’d die trying, Lash thought. Lord, but he wasn’t the one who was supposed to learn a hundred Bible verses in one week’s time. He wasn’t the one who’d be embarrassed right to the roots of his teeth getting up in front of all these people, who’d probably still be itching from their ant bites, to apologize and recite all those verses. Lash was. But Lash wasn’t the one who’d orchestrated this whole fiasco in the first place. He met Zane’s triumphant beady little eyes across the room. An ant bit hard, and Lash jumped and slapped at his leg, and when he did, that pretty gray-blue cat’s eye marble he’d been trying to win for a month popped right out of his pocket, rolled under the pew behind him and kept on rolling. And before he could get hold of it again, pudgy Zane with his ugly mug was knocking people out of the way to wedge himself under a pew two rows back. When he got up again, he held that marble between his thumb and forefinger and admired it, just to be sure Lash would see. Then he dropped it into his own pocket, and turned to saunter out of the church, acting like he wasn’t even aware of all the hopping and slapping and shouting going on around him. Silently Lash vowed that he would never, ever for the rest of his life, want to be plunked down into the middle of a huge family. Especially one with so many older, bigger, meaner brothers! Never! He made his way out of the church, and on the way, he caught the pale gaze of Olive Stanton, his foster mom, and he knew just by looking at her that she’d seen what Zane had just done. She knew that Lash wasn’t the one responsible for all of this. Heck, as far as brains went, she had twice as many as her husband, even if he was a preacher and all. But all Missus Stanton did was shake her head sadly and send a reproachful look toward Zane’s retreating back. She wouldn’t say anything. The woman didn’t have any backbone at all when it came to telling her husband—or anyone else, for that matter—that they were wrong. She’d sooner be hung by her toes than disagree with anyone, and she never raised her voice above a whisper. Lash wasn’t sure if that was because she appreciated all their coddling so much she didn’t want to seem ungrateful, or if she just didn’t have a lick of courage. But he did know he didn’t want to be around females who got themselves used to being waited on. It made them soft and yellow, as far as he was concerned. Nope. Once Lash grew up and moved away from the Stantons of Maplewood, Illinois, he was going to keep himself clear of coddled girls, big families and older brothers for the rest of his life...and maybe even longer than that! He didn’t like having chores to do, Bible verses to memorize. He didn’t like having to answer to the Reverend Mr. Stanton. He detested having to wait on Missus Olive. He just plain hated having to watch his every step in case he crossed those bullies he was forced to live with. When he grew up, Lash was never going to have to answer to anybody. He’d be free as a bird. Why, when he got tired of living in one place, he’d just throw his stuff in a bag and head off to someplace new and different. Every trip would be a brand-new adventure. Life was going to be fun and carefree, not an endless cycle of rules to be followed and orders to be obeyed. Not for Lash. He was kinda hoping he could look up his real brother, Jimmy, who was in Texas now, and talk him into going along with this plan. They’d be drifters. Free and happy. No women or families allowed. Meanwhile...Lash picked up his Bible, riffled the pages to be sure no ants were waiting in ambush inside, and then opened it to see if he could find a hundred verses the preacher hadn’t already made him memorize. As often as he got himself into trouble—with plenty of help from Zane and Petey the beef prince—he kinda doubted he’d find many. Chapter 1 Jessica Brand caught hold of the calf’s slippery, translucent front hooves and pulled as the cow strained. The animal was a first-calf heifer. She’d never been through this ordeal before, and she might not make it through this time. The cow was small, dammit. Jessi’s brothers never should have kept her as breeding stock. Jessi tightened her grip on the calf’s tiny forefeet and tugged, but her hands slipped. She flew backward, landing butt first on the barn’s concrete floor and cussing as the tiny calve’s hooves vanished back into the haven of its mother. The cow bellowed loud enough to wake the dead. “Hush, cow! The last thing I need is my brothers out here worrying I might break a nail. I’m a veterinarian now. And I could’ve handled this even without my brand-new license. Now be quiet and push.” She shoved herself to her feet, using her elbows instead of her hands. She didn’t want germs all over the latex gloves. Bracing one forearm across the cow’s rump, she delved into the birth canal with her free hand, found those tiny cloven hooves and began pulling again. “That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” The deep voice came from the open barn doors, and Jessi turned quickly, sighing in relief when she saw Lash lounging there grimacing at her. Better him than one of her oversized, overprotective brothers. Of course, it couldn’t have been one of her brothers. Any of them would have rushed her by now, shouting at her for standing close enough to be kicked, scolding that she wasn’t strong enough to pull a stubborn calf into the world, yelling at her for being out in the barn all alone in the middle of the night. She rolled her eyes at the thought of it. Thank God it wasn’t them. It was almost irritating, though, that Lash did none of those things. He just stood there, not so much as offering to lift a finger. “Get in here and close the door,” she told him. “If my brothers see the barn lights on, they’ll be swarming all over this place.” “So what? If they swarm, then you get to hand this mess over to them. Seems like an appealing prospect, from where I’m standing.” “If I wanted to hand it all over to them, Lash, I would have just yelled for ‘em in the first place. Now close the door.” With a slight frown and a glance over his shoulder toward the house, Lash complied. Then he moved closer, but the look of distaste on his face only grew more and more pronounced. “You’re just a big fraud, aren’t you, Lash?” Jessi said as she pulled, tugged and turned the calf slightly, trying to work him free before he suffocated. “You’re no ranch hand.” “Never claimed to be,” he said. “I told you before, I’m a firefighter. Or I was, till I came down here.” He narrowed his eyes. “I hate like hell to ask, but is there...something I can do to help?” “Yeah,” she said, glancing sideways at him, seeing the alarm flash in his pale blue eyes. Those eyes of his reminded her of an arctic wolf’s. Alarmingly at odds with his silky sable hair. Hair she’d fantasized about running her fingers through.... “Jessi?” She dragged her gaze from his hair and blinked. “Hmm?” “You were gonna tell me how I could help?” he said, then glanced at where her hands were and made a face. She laughed at him. “Don’t worry. I want you on the other end. Stroke this big girl’s head or talk to her or something. Scratch her ears. She’s so damn tensed up she’s gonna crush the calf instead of birthing him.” Nodding hard, Lash hurried around to the front of the cow and proceeded to stroke her head and whisper sweet nothings in her ear. The cow relaxed slightly. Jessi didn’t blame her. That man could melt butter. Well, he could melt her, anyway. Jessi smiled when the cow relaxed still more. She could see the calf’s wet pink nose now. “You’re good at that,” she said. “I’m fair with animals. That’s why I offered to stay on and help out while Garrett and Chelsea took their honeymoon.” He glanced over the top of the cow to meet her gaze. “Never volunteered for that end of things, though.” Jessi smiled at him. “Well, now that I’m a full-fledged vet, I suppose I’ll have to get used to this end of things.” He shook his head. “Makes me feel ancient. A kid like you is barely old enough to know what that end of things is for,” he said, and went back to stroking the cow’s face, calming her. Too bad he had the opposite effect on Jessi. She felt her face heating, and battled the urge to peel off her latex gloves and slap his face with them. Kid, indeed. Then she was distracted by the animal actually pushing for once. The calf’s head cleared so far she could see the closed eyes and pale lashes. “That’s good,” she called. “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.” She got a better grip on the newborn’s forelegs and waited. This time, when the cow pushed, Jessi was ready, and she pulled in sync. The calf’s entire head emerged and Jessi immediately cleared its airways, relieved when the tiny animal made wheezing sounds. But the calf was now hung up at the shoulders. This was the toughest part for the mother, she knew, and she used her hands again, wincing at the viselike pressure on her fingers as she probed. But she had to be sure the calf could emerge. “So tell me,” she said as she explored the poor, long-suffering animal, “Why did you really come here in the first place? I know, you said you had an old score to settle with that maniac who almost killed my brother. But you never said what.” Speaking softly, as if still soothing the pain-racked cow, Lash said, “That maniac...killed my brother.” Jessi was so startled that she paused in her examination of the animal and looked at him. He only nodded, his hand scratching the cow behind the ear. “Jimmy was with the DEA, investigating Vincent de Lorean’s drug trade. De Lorean found out and had him killed.” “And you quit your job at the Chicago Fire Department to come to Texas and make him pay?” She shook her head. “And my brothers call me impulsive and reckless!” “It wasn’t reckless. Hell, it worked. We got him, didn’t we?” Jessi nodded and resumed probing, not wanting to dwell on recent events that had nearly cost her oldest brother his life. “So what now?” she asked, trying not to sound overly interested in his answer, although she was. He only frowned at her. “You got de Lorean,” she clarified. “You stayed on here to help out while Garrett took his honeymoon. But he and Chelsea will be back tomorrow. So what are you going to do next?” He shrugged. “No idea.” Jessi dipped her head quickly to hide her sudden smile from him. The birth canal was clear, so she gripped the calf’s legs again, preparing to pull when the cow pushed. Soft baby-brown eyes blinked open and stared at her, unfocused and shining. “You could stay here,” she said. Then she peered around the cow to see his reaction. “We were short-handed even before Garrett left.” “Your brother Ben is home now,” Lash said. “You have plenty of hands.” “Adam isn’t. He insisted he had to get back to that city-slickin’ job of his in New York. Though we all know it’s really just that he’s scared to death of running into Kirstin Armstrong and finally having to ask her why she left him at the altar and married old...” The cow pushed, and Jessi pulled. The calf’s shoulders passed through. “That’s it, girl. Once more. Just once more.” “Come on, girl,” Lash said to the cow. “You’re doing great.” “Anyway,” Jessi continued, as she awaited what would, she hoped, be the final push. “We could use you here. I know I could.” He glanced at her sharply, eyes narrowed. “You’re a natural with the animals,” she said quickly. “Why, we could even put you in the extra bedroom up at—” “Not on your life,” Lash said. And again, Jessi popped up to meet his eyes. “You think there’s something wrong with my house, Lash Monroe?” “Just a bit crowded, is all,” he told her. “Been there. Done that. Didn’t like it.” She scowled at him, but he went on. “No, ma’am, Lash Monroe doesn’t like crowds. And he doesn’t like ties, either. Family or otherwise. I might stick around for a while, but then again, I might just pull up stakes and take off as soon as your brother comes back. I pride myself, you see, on being just as free as a bird. That’s all I want out of life, and so far, it’s exactly what I got. I aim to keep it that way.” The cow pushed. Jessi pulled. The calf slid into the world and Jessi hefted the hundred-pound baby bull in her arms, not letting him hit the floor. She eased him gently into the fresh hay she had waiting. “Untie her, Lash, so she can meet her newborn.” Lash loosened the halter ropes, and the cow turned around fast, bending her long neck and licking at her infant calf with so much vigor the little one was knocked over sideways with every swipe of his mother’s tongue. Jessi turned and peeled off the gloves, then headed into the room at the far end of the barn to deposit them in the wastebasket and scrub her hands thoroughly at the sink there. She hadn’t liked Lash’s response to her question. Then again, there wasn’t much he said or did that she did like. He insisted on seeing her as a kid, just the way her brothers did. It was damned infuriating. Especially when it was coming from him—the one man she’d ever met who made her want to come across as one hundred percent pure Texas woman. Not that she’d shown it. Not yet, anyway. She had to figure out how to proceed first. “So you’re ready to move on, huh?” she asked, pretending it was only small talk. “Well, I can’t say as I blame you. The work here is tough.” “I didn’t say I minded hard work.” “Right,” she said as she cranked off the faucets and reached for a paper towel. “Must be the dirt. You’re from the city, after all. Can’t blame you for going wishy-washy when it comes to the good fresh smell of cattle, can we?” “Dirt doesn’t bother me in the least,” he said. “I was a firefighter, for crying—” “Yes, but how long ago was that? I mean, you couldn’t go back to it now, could you? Feeling as ancient as you do, and all.” “Now hold on a—” “And it stands to reason that if you’re getting too old and decrepit to fight fires, then ranching can’t be much more to your liking.” She sighed as he narrowed his eyes on her. “Probably you’ll look for a nice easy job you can do from behind a desk, your butt cushioned by a soft chair as it slowly turns to flab.” She deliberately craned her neck and focused on the part of his anatomy in question, shaking her head and clicking her tongue. “Cryin’ shame, too.” She tossed her head and moved past him into the barn. The cow had licked the calf until his curly red-and-white coat stuck up in all directions. The little one had even managed to get to his feet. “Did I do something to make you mad, Jessi?” Lash asked, coming up behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. “‘Course not.” Then she lifted the calf in her arms and carried it around its mother. “Talk to her again, Lash. Let’s see if this little fella is hungry.” It was always a trial showing a newborn calf where to find nourishment for the first time, but even more of a trial getting a first-calf heifer to let her newborn suck. Of course, Jessi suspected Lash had no clue about any of that. She listened to him crooning at the cow as she guided the little one’s head to its mother’s udder. At the first taste, the calf began sucking madly, then suddenly jammed his head upward, in an action known as “bunting” that seemed to be an instinctive one among calves. Unfortunately, his mother did not appreciate her swollen, sore udder being so rudely treated. The cow jumped and kicked. Her hoof caught Jessi along her right temple and felt something like a sledgehammer. Jessi sailed backward from the force of the blow and hit the floor with an impact that knocked the wind out of her, but good. “Jessi!” Lash lunged forward, skidding onto his knees beside her, and though his face swam before her eyes, she could see the alarm in his expression. She supposed it was directly related to the warm trickle she felt on the side of her head. He tugged the bandanna from around his Stetson and pressed it to the wound, sliding his other arm beneath her shoulders and lifting her from the floor, searching her face. “Damn, you split your head. Are you okay? Can you see me? How many fingers am I holding up?” She blinked her vision clear and stared up into his eyes. Oh, man, she did like this. It was almost worth getting kicked. Lash holding her this way, bending over her—she could easily imagine that he was about to kiss her senseless, instead of just looking after a nasty wound. And she liked the fantasy so much that she moistened her lips and lifted one hand to fan her fingers into the hair just above his nape. It felt every bit as good as she’d imagined it would. She liked the feel of it on her fingers. “Jessi?” he asked, and he blinked in confusion. She smiled very slightly, and his eyes showed utter shock. They widened, then narrowed again. His brows drew together, and his gaze shifted downward to her lips. And then he couldn’t seem to look anywhere else. “Just what in the hell is all this?” Lash dropped her so suddenly she nearly cracked her head again. Jessi suppressed a growl of frustration and glanced over to see the calf now feeding happily on his own, the cow twitching and dancing a bit, but no longer fighting so hard. And beyond that, in the once again open doorway of the barn, she saw three big shapes silhouetted by moonlight and angry as all get-out. “Just what in the hell does it look like?” she snapped. “I got kicked. But I’m fine.” She got to her feet, ignoring the throbbing pain and the still slightly floaty sensation buzzing around in her head. She didn’t forget to send a disgusted glare at Lash as she brushed the hay from her jeans, and then from her hair. Wes didn’t look as if he believed her. His dark Comanche eyes narrowed on her, then on Lash. Elliot just leaned against the barn door grinning. Ben stood there without a hint of how he felt showing in his blue eyes. His shaggy blond mane moved with the breeze. Gosh, he was so quiet these days. She never knew what he was thinking. To ease their minds, she lifted Lash’s neckerchief away from her head, felt the bleeding start up again, saw her three brothers instantly pale and surge forward. They were so predictable, and all shouting at once. “Jeez, Lash, how could you let this happen?” “Damn cow is headed for auction first chance I have!” “What the hell you doin’ under a damned first-calf heifer anyway, Jess? You should have asked one of us for help.” Ben scooped her off her feet and started toward the house. Elliot rushed on ahead to call Doc. Wes headed into the barn to install the mother and newborn in the holding pen in the back for the night. “Put me down,” Jessi ordered. “Dammit, Benjamin, I mean it!” But Ben just shook his head and smiled gently at her, carrying her the rest of the way inside. “Relax and enjoy it, honey. You’re bleeding, and that’s no little cut. So tell me, what was our hired hand doing out there just now?” Jessi rolled her eyes. “Trying to stop the blood from oozing outta my skull, you big nosy lug. What did it look like?” Ben shrugged. “Looked like he was fixin’ to kiss you, baby sister. And I can tell you, the day he does will be the day he’s hitting the road. Comprende?” “Don’t sweat it, Ben. He’s already planning to hit the road. Any day now, as a matter of fact. You got nothing to worry about.” She stared into his blue eyes—dark blue, like the Gulf at midnight, instead of pale silvery blue like Lash’s—then she poked him in the chest. “But I’ll tell you one thing, big guy. I’m gonna kiss who I want, when I want, and how I want, and if you try to butt in, it’s gonna be your rear end hitting the road. And I’ll be behind you, kicking it from here to El Paso.” He smiled at her, or came as close to smiling as he ever did since his wife died, then reached down to ruffle her hair. Jessi let her head fall backward and rolled her eyes. She was going to go stark raving mad if she didn’t find a way to change the attitudes of the males on the Texas Brand. One male in particular. She glanced back toward the barn, saw Lash standing in the doorway, staring after her and looking a little confused. Damn. What would it take to make him—to make all of them—see her as a grown woman with a mind of her own? What? The Texas Brands The Littlest Cowboy The Baddest Virgin in Texas Badlands Bad Boy Long Gone Lonesome Blues The Lone Cowboy Lone Star Lonely The Outlaw Bride Texas Angel Texas Homecoming Brand-New Heartache Prologue It made him sick that he liked her so much. In Wade’s mind, she represented everything he hated about this town, this high school. When he passed her in the hall, she looked right through him, just like almost everyone did. Wade Armstrong lived in a rusty, lopsided trailer with three junk cars—none of which ran very often—in the drive-way. His old man was the town drunk and got tossed into jail at least once a month for being disorderly at one of the local bars. Even, every now and then, the one her mother owned. He didn’t remember his own mother. They said she hanged herself when he was three. He didn’t think Edie Brand was so much better than him. Sure, she had a mother, but her old man wasn’t in the picture. Folks said he’d had another family on the side. Wade heard he’d been shot down in a gangland execution. That might be way more romantic than hanging yourself, but the old man was just as dead. Of course, there was more standing between him and Edie Brand than that. Edie’s mother owned a saloon, kept her daughters in decent clothes and shoes. Wade’s father spent most of his time in saloons and most of his money on whiskey. Wade’s own clothes never looked like much and were rarely a perfect fit. He couldn’t afford to be fussy. His part-time job at the garage in town barely paid enough for him to keep the power and heat turned on in the trailer and buy a few groceries now and then. Edie lived in a house. No mansion, but it was worlds above his place. Still, her family was almost as scandalous as his own. She just had a way of outshining her background. A way that almost made him jealous, though he would die before he would admit it out loud. Why the hell couldn’t he breeze through life as if he was just a hair short of royalty, despite the truth? Hell, he knew why. Because guys were different. The jocks in this school detested him, and they never let him forget how far above him they saw themselves. It wasn’t overt. Just the looks they’d send. The way they would huddle in a group and watch him pass, talking softly, then laughing aloud. Matt McConnell was the worst offender. In various little ways over the years, he’d managed to make Wade feel about as important as a piece of gum on the quarterback’s shoe. Wade turned, leaned against his locker, and watched Edie Brand as she walked away from him, hangers-on milling around her like gnats around a bug light. Everyone wanted to be near her—as if she gave off some kind of magnetic energy that drew them. He didn’t know what the hell it was. True, she was beautiful. More than just your normal, garden-variety prettiness—Edie Brand was beautiful. Movie star beautiful. Her smile made people act like idiots, tripping over themselves to get closer. That could easily include him, unfortunately. It was a constant effort to appear as if he didn’t give a damn whether she was on the planet. God, he was pathetic. She didn’t even know he existed. He was sure of that much. When he met her in the halls at school, she never looked him in the eye, always kept hers averted. Never said hello, and he would be damned if he would speak first. He was invisible to her. Her whole crowd—the jocks, the cheerleaders, the popular kids—ignored him. They didn’t mess with him, but they didn’t speak to him, either. He didn’t exist in their world. They were content to keep it that way. He would show them someday. He would show them all. For now, though, he just watched, and willed her to look his way as she stopped at her locker, faced it and began spinning the dial on the lock while smiling and talking to her admirers. His fantasy spun out in his brain the way it always did. This was his senior year. Prom was coming up. She was only a sophomore. Not that it mattered—he wouldn’t go anyway. But in his fantasy, he did. He rolled up to her farmhouse in a long black limo, and he got out wearing a tux. She came to the door in a white dress that reached the floor, looking just like an angel. Smiling with those baby-blue eyes, right up at him. Hell. It was a dumb dream. He couldn’t afford a tux or a limo. He would be lucky to get one of the junk heaps on the lawn running long enough to drive to the school gym and back, and a tux would be out of the question. He’d been idiotic enough to check the prices for rentals. Then there would be tickets, a corsage, dinner out somewhere beforehand, like all the socially acceptable couples had. Maybe if he didn’t eat for a week…. A squeal of girlish laughter shook him out of his thoughts, and he looked again at Edie Brand, as her friends nudged her and giggled. Matt McConnell was standing near Edie, holding her hand, smiling at her, waiting. She parted her lips to speak, and Wade found himself straining to hear, moving closer without even realizing it “Sure, Matt,” she said. “I’d love to go to the prom with you.” Something burned like acid in Wade’s chest as he watched the confident high-school quarterback lean close and plant a kiss on Edie’s cheek. And he vowed he would hate that girl forever. Chapter 1 Thirteen Years Later…. “Hey, boss, you hear the latest?” Jimmy rolled out from under a red Taurus headfirst, faceup, wiping his hands on a grease rag. Wade stopped halfway between the tiny office attached to the garage and the communal coffee urn, a cup in his hand. “What news?” “Your favorite pinup girl is back in town.” He managed not to spill the coffee. In fact, he was pretty sure he managed not to show any reaction at all. It shouldn’t be difficult. Hell, he barely thought about Edain Brand anymore—or Edie B., as she was known in the media. He only had her sexy catalogue photos pinned up all over the shop because she represented everything he hated, everyone who had ever brushed him off as unworthy. Looking at her reminded him of all the things he had to prove to the upper-crust folks in this town. That he was as good as they were. That he wasn’t anything like his old man. That they had been wrong to judge him as if he were. That he could be successful. He wouldn’t be happy until he was the most successful person in Big Falls. And he had a damn good start on it, too. Armstrong Auto Repair & Body Shop had four full-time employees. Wade didn’t even have to work on the cars anymore. He still did once in a while, just to keep from going soft, but he didn’t have to. He was even thinking of opening a second garage over in Tucker Lake. And by week’s end, he planned to buy the nicest house in Big Falls, just to drive his point home. “Boss? You hear me? I said Edie B. is back. Shelly saw her in town today.” “I heard you. What makes you think I care?” Jimmy frowned at him, glanced at the catalogue pages lining the walls, the calendar that had gone out of date five months ago but still hung there. Then he looked at his boss again. “I don’t know. I just thought you’d want to know.” “Already knew,” he said. “She’s been back in town since her sister got married, last Christmas. Just been keeping to herself.” It wasn’t as if he had been paying attention or anything. Nor had her brother-in-law Caleb, Wade’s only real friend, breathed a word. He’d just happened to see her name in one of the celebrity gossip rags at the checkout counter of the local grocery store when he’d been picking up snacks and beer for the Super Bowl, and he’d picked it up to read the article. The piece said Edie B. had left L.A. when her contract with the sexiest lingerie catalogue in the world, Vanessa’s Whisper, had expired in December, then dropped out of sight There had been all sorts of speculation as to where she’d gone and why, from plastic surgery to a secret marriage to a dread disease. Even more questions were posed about her plans for the future. Would she renew her contract with VW? She was their top model, but it was common knowledge her price had been dropping over the past year, as hot new faces and lean new bodies arrived on the scene. Would she continue modeling, the paper asked, or maybe move on to acting? That theory had made him smile. Those tabloid writers sure had short memories. Five years back or so, Edie B. had landed a bit part in an action flick that had gone straight to video. It hadn’t been easy to find a copy. Wade had to hunt it down on the Internet to get his hands on one. Just out of curiosity, of course. He’d almost winced for her when he’d watched her acting debut. She was terrible. Terrible. “She’s been holed up at her mother’s place this whole time,” he went on as Jimmy watched him with arched brows. He knew that because he’d been kind of keeping an eye out for her ever since he’d read that article, back in January. And he’d glimpsed her once or twice. Checking the mail, shoveling the walk. He’d seen her out mowing the lawn one day last week. “She’s been hiding out like a whipped pup.” “What do you suppose happened to make her want to do that?” Wade shrugged. “Don’t know, don’t care.” He wondered about it, too, though. She’d always been in the spotlight, right in the center of attention and loving every minute of it. For her to retreat so well that none of the locals even knew she’d been in town for five months was damned out of character. But what the hell did he know? “Apparently, whatever it is, it’s over now.” “Then why isn’t she back in L.A.?” Jimmy asked. “Jimmy, how about we stop gossiping about the local underwear model and get on with fixing this car, huh?” Jimmy shrugged, grinned and slid his creeper back underneath the car. Wade headed for his office again. But he paused on the way to glance up at Edie Brand on her hands and knees, back arched, hand making a claw like a cat scratching at the camera. She wore a push-up bra and thong panties made of fake leopard fur. Her blond hair was teased and perfectly tousled, and her teeth were bared between shiny pink lips. Damn, she looked good. Edie B. looked into the camera as if it was her secret lover. Her face was flawless, her hair piled and curled and gleaming like gold. Her practiced smile was unwavering as she answered a TV entertainment reporter’s questions regarding her daring outfit for the Couture Network Fashion Awards, where she would be presenting later that night. Who designed it? Were there sequins involved? What color would it be? And what was really going on between her and the drummer from that hardcore band? She answered every question without giving away a thing. And she looked good doing it. She’d been at the top of her game that day. Her mother came into the living room, looked from Edain, slouched on the sofa, watching herself on TV, to the television, where the year-old interview played on. Then she looked back at Edie again. “I thought I told you the pity-party was over, daughter?” Edie thumbed the stop button and dropped the remote control onto the sofa beside her. “I went out today,” she said, a little defensively. “I even did my hair and makeup first. Ask Mel, if you don’t believe me.” “It’s true, Mom,” Mel called from the kitchen. “She bought cute little outfits for the twins and some fresh flowers for the dining-room table.” Vidalia Brand nodded slowly, eyeing Edain as she did. “Well, that’s a start, I suppose. Too bad you came home and resumed wallowing in ancient history so darn fast.” “I know how little it means to you, Mom, but I was at my best in that piece I was just watching.” “Oh you were, were you?” “Yes. I was.” “That piece aired the day after a schoolroom shooting. A six-year-old girl died, Edain. And you were on the TV talking about your clothes. It was far from your finest moment.” Edie looked up slowly. She honest to God had a love-hate relationship with her mother. She loved the woman, respected her for having managed to raise five daughters on her own. And she owed her own good looks to her mom’s genetics, if not her coloring. God, even now, Vidalia Brand didn’t look half her age. She had a killer figure, and thick, raven hair with a few strands of silver just starting to line it, and the cheekbones of a royal. Unfortunately, though her love for her mom was requited, the respect was not. Vidalia had never gotten over Edie’s career choices. And she probably never would. “The shooting hadn’t happened yet when we taped the interview,” Edie said slowly, trying to hold her temper. “It had happened when they ran it, which ought to tell you a lot about the values in that make-believe world where you’ve been living.” Edie looked down at her hands in her lap, unable to answer that. It was true. She knew that. “I like to think there was a reason you left that life, Edain. Like maybe that you finally realized you didn’t belong there. And if you think that—” she snatched the remote up and hit play, then paused it on Edie’s perfectly made-up face and false smile “—was your finest moment, then you are sadly misinformed.” “I was at the height of my career.” “You were pretty. It didn’t matter what you thought or how you felt, just so long as you looked good, and you did. To you, that’s some kind of peak?” Sighing, Vidalia shook her head. She shut the TV off, tossed the remote down. “Are you going back to modeling underwear for a living or not, daughter? It’s time you made a decision.” “Don’t you think I’ve been wrestling with that question for the past five months? Don’t you think it’s killing me, not knowing?” “No, I don’t. You’ve got too much money, that’s what your trouble is. You can afford to mope around the house, licking your wounds and pouting for just as long as you want. No pressure to get off your backside and earn a living.” Edie bristled. “I’m pitching in more than my fair share around here! I even work at the bar after hours.” “Uh-huh. And that’s what you’re gonna do for the rest of your life? Mop floors after hours and spend your days watching old tapes of yourself on TV? Hm?” “No! Of course not!” “Then what are you gonna do?” “I don’t—” “Don’t you tell me you don’t know. I didn’t raise any airheads, Edain Brand, contrary to public opinion and TV spots like that empty smiled, vacant-eyed one you call the peak of your career. So don’t you tell me you haven’t given this some thought. You always knew your good looks wouldn’t sustain you forever.” Edie crossed her arms over her chest refusing to meet her mother’s eyes. “I always thought retirement would be another ten years off.” Her mother made a noise. Edie said, “Well, at least five.” “And?” She shrugged. “I don’t know.” “You don’t know.” Vidalia said the words as if they made her stomach hurt. Then she stomped away, up the stairs. Edie sighed in relief, thinking the conversation was over, but that was a mistake. Because seconds later Vidalia came down again with Edie’s big black camera case in one hand. She placed it carefully on Edie’s lap. “Lie to your mother, will you?” Edie shook her head, confused. “This doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a hobby.” “The hell it is, girl. I saw the photos you’ve taken since you’ve been home. Maya’s twins. Your sister’s wedding, such as it was. The Falls. The snow still clinging to the trees after that freak storm. You’re good, Edie. And you know about a camera. Goodness knows you’ve spent enough time in front of one.” Edain licked her lips, hesitant to admit to something she knew her mother would leap on. “I…have toyed with the idea of opening a photography studio of my own.” Vidalia Brand smiled, nodded once, firmly, and said, “Then do it.” “I don’t know, Mom. I’m not sure I—” “Moping time’s over, daughter. Get out of this slump you’re in and start making a life for yourself, or I will personally kick your backside all the way back to La-La-Land. If you think I’m not serious, you just try me.” “I know you’re serious.” Vidalia nodded again. “You’d better.” She drew a breath, blew it out again, then sat on the edge of the sofa. She glanced just once toward the kitchen, but Mel had the good sense to keep out of the line of fire, though she’d peeked in a few times during the discussion. “What are you running from, Edain? Something sure chased you home in a hurry. You haven’t been yourself at all since you came back. You barely see anyone besides family. You keep to the house as much as possible. What is it?” After a long pause, Edie said, “Maybe I’m not myself because I’m not sure who that is anymore.” “Bullcookies.” Edie sniffed, lowered her head a little. “No. It’s true. You always used to tell me there was more to me than a pretty face, Mom, but I didn’t bother to find out what. That pretty face was all I needed to get where I wanted to go. Where I…thought I wanted to go. Now, I…I don’t know. I’m close to thirty. Models fifteen years younger are taking the slots that used to be mine. It’s getting harder and harder to keep up with them.” She shook her head. “Something scared me, you’re right about that. I thought that was the only reason I left, but I just can’t drum up any enthusiasm for going back. I don’t want to work out until I drop or live on carrot sticks anymore. You know I’ve put on ten pounds since I’ve been home?” “Ten? You could use another twenty. You’re nothing but bones. A grown woman is not supposed to have the body of a prepubescent girl and the breasts of a nursing mother, you know. It’s unnatural.” A snort came from the kitchen. “Shut up, Mel.” “Sorry. Frog in my throat,” Mel called. Her mother sighed, because the body image that Edain’s work perpetuated was another sore subject with her. Still, she softened and searched Edie’s face. “What scared you, honey? You tell me, and I’ll see it gets removed from creation, whatever it is.” That made Edie smile. Her mother meant every word of it, she knew that. The woman would fight a pack of rabid wolves bare-handed for her daughters. Even the one whose career she had so disapproved of. “It doesn’t matter, Mom. It’s been months. I think it’s over.” Vidalia looked doubtful, but nodded all the same. “So, you gonna get on with your life or what?” Edie smiled gently. “I suppose I could go see Betty Lou at the real estate office. At least see what’s available that might make a nice photography studio someday. In case that’s the decision I make.” “That’s a start,” Vidalia said. Then she turned to look through the dining room into the kitchen. “It’s safe to come in now, Melusine. You can stop pretending to check on my pot roast. We all know you can’t cook anyway.” She glanced at Edain with a smile. “Bring the cordless phone along with you. Your sister wants to call Betty Lou Jennings, over at the real estate office.” Mel came in, telephone in one hand, phone book in the other. She was the toughest pixie ever to live in Big Falls, tiny and dark as an elf, strong and hot-tempered as a Brahma bull. She sent Edie a sympathetic look as she handed her the phone. Edie took it with a sigh. “I suppose now is as good a time as any.” Two hours later she was driving her SUV into a curving driveway, where another vehicle was already parked. She came to a stop and stared at the tall, darkly stained house. It had a modified A-frame center, with two wings angling back on either side. There were huge skylights on both sides of the steeply pitched center roof, and floor-to-ceiling windows in the front. It was huge. And it sat on a hilltop, with the falls providing a stunning view from a short distance away. When she’d spoken to Betty Lou, describing what she wanted—something large, airy, open, with plenty of natural light—she hadn’t expected the woman to tell her she had the perfect place, much less that she was showing it to a client that very afternoon. Edie had to wonder if her mother had cooked this up ahead of time with the real estate agent, who was an old friend. Still, the place was spectacular. God, if she knew for sure she was going to stay in Big Falls, she would buy it this minute, without even having seen the inside. This was it, Wade thought, walking slowly through the house he’d been all but drooling over for the past ten years. A Tulsa architect had built it here, planning to retire in it, but the isolation had proven too much for him to handle in his old age. He’d longed for tropical climates, so now the place was vacant and up for sale. It was a dream. And the way it sat slightly above the rest of the town appealed to him for its symbolism. No one could look down on him up here. He heard a car pull in, figured Betty Lou had arrived. She’d left a key in the mailbox for him, told him to come on up and look around, that she would meet him here. He couldn’t help but show up a little on the early side. He’d been waiting a long time for this. He already had a buyer for his little place in town. He planned to close on that deal by week’s end. That would bring enough for the down payment, and he had a good enough credit rating to finance the rest. Everything was in place. He was ready. Footsteps came up the stairs from the lower-level foyer. He turned, expecting to see Betty Lou Jennings, whose shape and demeanor reminded him of a bumblebee. Instead, he saw her. She met his gaze, seemed a little startled, but hid it quickly enough. “I’m looking for Betty Lou—” “She’s running a little late,” he managed without stammering, because, damn, she looked better than in her photos. The fact that she had clothes on didn’t take a thing away from the sex appeal that wafted from her like musk. It had only been hinted at before she’d left high school and Big Falls all those years ago. Now it was full grown, and so was she. Eyes so big they could swallow him whole. Skin like satin. Her golden blond hair was pulled back, pinned up, nothing like the bedroom styles she wore for those sexy photos. But her lips were just as plump, and he knew that wasn’t collagen. They’d always been that way. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t think I—” So she didn’t remember him. No wonder. She’d barely noticed him. “Name’s Armstrong,” he said quickly, cutting her off. Her brows drew together briefly, but then she was busy glancing around the room, and he didn’t think she was checking the place out with the eye of an interested buyer. She looked more like a woman alone with a snake, searching for something to whack it with. “Betty Lou will be along any minute,” he said. “I’m sure she will.” She shuffled her feet, looked nervous. “So are you looking to buy this place?” Her eyes shot back to his. “I was thinking about it. Of course, I haven’t even seen it yet, so it’s hard to say.” “Well, we can remedy that right now.” He moved closer to her, almost against his will, curved a hand around her elbow, felt a shot of pleasure at touching the woman who fueled so many of his nighttime fantasies. He had to forcibly remind himself of his goal here. Eliminate any competition he might have for this place. Quickly. “This is the living room. The fireplace is my favorite part.” He led her toward it, trying to resist the catalogue page that flashed into his mind. Her, sprawled suggestively on a bearskin rug in front of a fireplace a lot like this one, wearing a leopard print bra and matching thong panties. When she looked at him, he wondered if he’d groaned out loud or just mentally. He tried to cover by getting back to his goal. “Of course, it’s a huge risk, having a natural fireplace. Easy as hell to burn the place to the ground if you don’t know what you’re doing.” “Good thing I grew up with wood heat, then, huh?” she asked. She made it sound completely innocent, but he could tell she had guessed what he was up to. “You looking to buy this house for yourself, Mr. Armstrong?” He shrugged, turning away from the fireplace. “Then, of course, there are the windows. Floor to ceiling,” he said in his best tour guide voice. “I can see that,” she said. Almost as if she was talking down to him. He bristled but tried to hide it. “They’ll make it damned uncomfortable in here. Roast you right out in the summer, I imagine.” “Unless you turn on the AC,” she returned. He pursed his lips. It was going to take more than questioning the house’s merits to get rid of her, wasn’t it? Fine. He had more. He had plenty more. “It’ll take a creative mind to figure out how to cover them. For privacy, I mean. Then again, I don’t suppose you worry about that too much.” She narrowed her eyes on him. “And why do you suppose that, Mr. Armstrong?” He shrugged. “You don’t seem like the shy, retiring type.” “Because I was a model?” She faced him now, hands on her hips, and he could see she was angry. “Because there’s not much of you that hasn’t already been seen by everyone who cared to look.” “That was my job, caveman. It doesn’t mean I’m going to parade around in my underwear in front of open windows.” He lifted his brows and his hands. “Hey, don’t get defensive on me. I didn’t mean anything. Hell, I’d be the last one to complain about your work. Ask anyone in town.” He turned away again. “Now, as you can see, this main area could double as a dining room. The kitchen is right through—” She stopped him, a hand closing tight around his upper arm as he started toward the kitchen. He winced in pleasure. God, he liked her touching him. “What do you mean, you’d be the last one to complain?” He turned an innocent look on her. “Only that your photos provide a valuable service to a great many men on cold, lonely nights, Edie B. Myself included.” “When you can’t get a real woman, you mean?” she snapped back. “Exactly. Sometimes there’s just no one to keep a fellow company besides you, and good old Rosy Palm.” She frowned. “Rosy Pa—” She went silent, her mouth gaping. She was only speechless for an instant, though. A second later she clamped her jaw, smacked him across the face and turned on her heel. She was out of the house so fast it must have been some kind of record. Her tires spat gravel in their wake when she left. Wade smiled broadly, rubbing his cheek. “For a second there, I was afraid I’d never get her out of here,” he said to the empty room. He probably shouldn’t have been quite so mean. But it served her right for not recognizing him. She should at least have found him vaguely familiar. But no. She was the same arrogant little brat she’d always been. Still thought she was better than him. Just like so many others in this town. Screw it. He would show them all. The minute Betty Lou Jennings arrived, he was going to tell her to mark this place sold. To him.

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