“My room has a private entrance.”
The silence arced between them, intense and urgent, as compelling as the fire blazing in his eyes. With him, she would find sweet fulfillment.
It would be bliss. And it would be based on lies. Tomorrow always came and with it the reckoning she’d come to expect. Then whatever they’d shared would be lost, one more thing to remember with regret….
“What troubles you so?” he asked.
“Us,” she admitted. “And all that it implies.”
She turned from his scrutiny. “I don’t know.”
He nodded as if he understood. “Sometimes things move too fast. There are too many questions.”
The questions pertained to her. She clenched her hands and wished she could tell him everything—all her worries, her yearnings, her dreams.
He let off the brake and made the turn onto the road home. His home, not hers. She must remember that.
Your best bet for coping with April showers is to run—not walk—to your favorite retail outlet and check out this month’s lineup. We’d like to highlight popular author Laurie Paige and her new miniseries SEVEN DEVILS. Laurie writes, “On my way to a writers’ conference in Denver, I spotted the Seven Devils Mountains. This had to be checked out! Sure enough, the rugged, fascinating land proved to be ideal for a bunch of orphans who’d been demanding that their stories be told.” You won’t want to miss Showdown!, the second book in the series, which is about a barmaid and a sheriff destined for love!
Gina Wilkins dazzles us with Conflict of Interest, the second book in THE MCCLOUDS OF MISSISSIPPI series, which deals with the combustible chemistry between a beautiful literary agent and her ruggedly handsome and reclusive author. Can they have some fun without love taking over the relationship? Don’t miss Marilyn Pappano’s The Trouble with Josh, which features a breast cancer survivor who decides to take life by storm and make the most of everything—but she never counts on sexy cowboy Josh Rawlins coming into the mix.
In Peggy Webb’s The Mona Lucy, a meddling but well-meaning mother attempts to play Cupid to her son and a beautiful artist who is painting her portrait. Karen Rose Smith brings us Expecting the CEO’s Baby, an adorable tale about a mix-up at the fertility clinic and a marriage of convenience between two strangers. And in Lisette Belisle’s His Pretend Wife, an accident throws an ex-con and an ex-debutante together, making them discover that rather than enemies, they just might be soul mates!
As you can see, we have a variety of stories for our readers, which explore the essentials—life, love and family. Stay tuned next month for six more top picks from Special Edition!
Karen Taylor Richman
Showdown! Laurie Paige
To the Redding bunch—for the laughs, the sharing and the wedding from you-know-where. It was a riot!
“One of the nicest things about writing romances is researching locales, careers and ideas. In the interst of authenticity, most writers will try anything…once.” Along with her writing adventures, Laurie has been a NASA engineer, a past president of the Romance Writers of America, a mother and a grandmother. She was twice a Romance Writers of America RITA® Award finalist for Best Traditional Romance and has won awards from Romantic Times for Best Silhouette Special Edition and Best Silhouette.
“Last one,” Zack Dalton reminded Lady Luck, but without much hope the fabled lady would have a change of heart and smile on him.
Huh. His luck with females had been pretty sour lately. A tang of bitterness like the aftertaste of fine wine gone to vinegar lingered on his tongue. He ignored it and the accompanying pang in his heart. He’d trusted one female with that organ and had had it handed back to him last summer when his fiancée had visited relatives in Denver, met some rich guy and married him on the spot.
So much for trust, loyalty and true love.
His uncle Nick said all things happened for the best. Looking at it that way, he figured he’d gotten off easy, heart and pride dinged but repairable.
He fed his last quarter into the slot machine, pushed the button and watched the wheels spin. They came up zilch. Okay, so he wasn’t destined to be rich. That probably was for the best, he consoled himself philosophically, then chuckled at his little jest.
Glancing at the clock, he saw it was midnight. The reason he was at the slots was simple. Las Vegas was truly a city that never slept. It wouldn’t let him catch any zzz’s, either. Too many lights, too many people, too much noise at all hours.
His duty here was done and he could start home tomorrow. He’d better try for some rest, assuming he could find the elevator that would take him from the casino level to his floor far above the neon sparkle of the famous strip. He glanced around, searching for a landmark as a guide.
“You dropped a coin, sir,” a polite voice, very feminine, very soft, spoke from behind his left shoulder.
He swiveled around on the stool and gazed into eyes rimmed by false lashes so long he wondered how the cocktail waitress could lift her eyelids. The lashes cast such deep shadows he couldn’t tell what color her eyes were. The rest of her makeup was just as exaggerated, giving her a fake tan and rosily blushing cheeks that were obviously painted on. Dark roots showed along the uneven part in her blond hair.
While he liked his women more natural, sort of outdoorsy, his interest was piqued by the beauty spot a half inch from one corner of her mouth. Her lips had a full, soft look in spite of the thick lipstick. The fullness coupled with the tiny mole gave her mouth a sort of vulnerability that surprised him.
Even more surprising was his urge to touch her, as if he needed to be sure she was real. He had an instant, equally strong desire to kiss her.
Whoa! He hadn’t had that many beers, at least he didn’t think he had.
“Sir?” she said in that soft voice so at odds with her been-there-done-that appearance.
He took the quarter, dropped it in the slot and hit the spin button as he watched her deliver a drink to a man three machines down. From this view, she looked great.
Her outfit was cut into a provocative drape that left a lot of bare skin. She had smooth shoulders and a small waist, slender hips and firm thighs clad in fishnet hose.
He paused to admire the thighs.
A bell clanged and the sound of falling coins assailed his ears. Other players looked at him, some with envy, some with smiles. Zack frowned at his machine. When he looked around again, the waitress was gone.
“Here, you’ll need a bucket,” the soft voice said, speaking from his right this time. A plastic bucket was plunked down on the narrow ledge between the slots.
“Thanks,” he said, but she was already gone.
A number was flashing on the slot display. His brain seemed swathed in cotton as he tried to divide four into six hundred and come up with the amount of his winnings.
“Boy, howdy, 150 smackers,” the man on his left said jovially, giving him the answer. “Not bad for a couple of hours’ work, huh?”
Actually it was a nice bonus, considering he’d had the unpleasant job of returning an escaped prisoner, captured in Idaho, to Vegas. The deputies had drawn lots on Monday to see who had to do the task and he’d won. Or lost, according to how one looked at it.
Speaking of winning, he realized he owed the waitress a big tip. As he rose, four couples, boisterous and merry, jostled their way down the aisle. One of them hit his arm. Six hundred quarters hit the floor.
“Oops, sorry,” one of the happy group said, not the least bit remorseful. “Hey, great win.”
Five minutes of chaos reigned while they scrambled to pick up the coins and toss them back into his bucket. Since there was no room for him to join them, he stood still and watched. The men and women, bobbing up and down as they worked, reminded him of the chickens his uncle Nick insisted on raising back at the Seven Devils Ranch.
He patiently waited until the noisy couples finished and left, apologizing loudly for the trouble they’d caused. When the aisle cleared, a shapely derriere was directly in front of him. The waitress was on her knees, retrieving coins from under the adjacent row of slots.
Zack’s eyes widened, then narrowed as he stared at her left thigh just below the skimpy, high-cut costume. He took three steps, then bent down as if he, too, was looking for quarters. From the vantage of a foot away, he could see her upper thigh where it joined the delectable curve of her hip.
Yep, a scar was discernible under the fishnet. He inched closer. The scar was jagged and three-pointed. His lungs stopped working while his heart went into overdrive.
“My gosh,” he muttered, blinking in amazement. Talk about luck; he couldn’t believe this. Lifting one finger, he traced the outline—
“Aaaiii,” the waitress squealed, straightening abruptly.
“Back up, buddy,” a security cop ordered, appearing out of nowhere and grabbing him by the collar. Zack was strong-armed to a standing position. The cop’s partner stood close by, alert for trouble.
“It’s okay,” he assured the cop. “She’s my cousin.”
The security men looked at the woman.
“I’ve never seen him before in my life,” she declared in shocked tones, the painted eyebrows rising indignantly as she moved away from him, the delectable lips compressed in a narrow line.
“That’s true, but I know you,” Zack explained, speaking in reasonable tones and tamping the excitement down. “That scar on your butt, uh, buttock, uh, thigh is a dead giveaway.”
“We’ll take care of him,” the cop told the woman.
She disappeared into the crowd while Zack was held and questioned by the patrol. “You staying here?” the older one asked.
“You need help getting to your room?”
“I’m not leaving,” he told them firmly. “Now that I’ve found Uncle Nick’s daughter, I’ve got to take her home. To the ranch,” he added in case they misunderstood where he meant. “Seven Devils Mountains. Idaho.”
“Detank,” one of the security patrol said.
“Right. You want me to report it?” the other man asked. “It’s Friday. You’re supposed to leave early tonight.”
The first man sighed. “I’ll do it when I sign out.”
Zack realized the futility of protesting as they led him to a private room down a narrow corridor off the elevator area. He was vaguely amused as he thought of possible headlines: Visiting cop busted in a casino for looking at a woman’s—
The rest of the thought was lost as the door slammed behind him and locked. He realized two things. One, “detank” was a place for inebriated clients to sleep it off. Two, they thought he fit that description.
Apparently he hadn’t explained himself well enough. He was now trapped in the proverbial padded cell. A leather sofa and chair were the only furnishings. He sat down to wait for some form of rescue, his bucket of quarters still clenched in one hand.
One thing he noticed right away: it was quiet in here. No traffic. No sirens. No bursts of laughter or strange voices outside his bedroom door. Just blissful silence.
He yawned. In the four days he’d been on this trip, he hadn’t had a full night’s sleep due to all the racket.
Hannah “Honey” Carrington finished her shift at two in the morning. She turned in her cash, then went to the locker room. After tucking the money apron onto a shelf, she changed shoes and pulled a shirt and long skirt over her working outfit. Grabbing her purse, she headed out, glad to be going home.
“Hey, Bert,” she said to the security guard who was also going off duty.
“Hey, Honey,” the guard said.
“Say, what happened to the guy who was in the casino?” she asked. “The one who said he was my cousin,” she added with a sardonic smile. She’d heard a few lines in her time, but that had been a new one.
Bert frowned. “I don’t know. Bill took care of it.” Alarm spread over his face. “Uh-oh.”
“Bill. He got a call just after we left you. His wife is having a baby. That’s why he was supposed to leave early. I sure hope—” He broke off and headed toward the elevators at a near run.
Although instinct said she should go home and not get involved, Honey trailed after him. The tall lanky stranger had been polite in his dealings with her. He was handsome, and she’d found him interesting. There had been an amused gentleness about him—as if he laughed at life’s vagaries.
Then he’d made the peculiar crack about being cousins. That had put her on guard and reminded her that, for her own good, she should be more cynical about people.
When Bert unlocked the door to the holding room, she followed him inside. A soft snore greeted them.
The stranger was sound asleep on the sofa, his bucket of change balanced on his stomach, rising and falling with each breath.
“At least he isn’t climbing the walls,” Bert muttered under his breath, then called to the detained customer. “Sir? Sir? It’s time to go. Rise and shine.”
The stranger awoke at once, grabbed the bucket before it toppled and rose to a sitting position. “What’s up?”
“You can go,” Bert told him. “Do you remember where you’re staying?”
“Sure. Here. Room 2008.” He pulled the card key from his pocket as if to prove it.
“Good. The elevator is this way.”
The stranger spotted her hovering behind the security guard. His smile was quick and delighted. Dazzling. His eyes were a deep, true blue, his hair dark, a little long and enticingly tousled as it swept over his forehead in a deep wave. An odd tension filled her when he looked her way.
“Hi, cousin,” he said.
“Sorry, I’m not your cousin.”
Had she not learned to be skeptical of people’s motives, she might have believed he thought she really was his cousin. There was an engaging openness and confidence about the stranger, as if he knew where he belonged and was content in that knowledge. She could envy him that.
For the briefest moment, the despair and sense of vulnerability, of always being held hostage to the whims of a dark fate, loomed over her. She felt utterly alone in the world.
Poor little lonely one, she mocked the self-pity. She had an aunt and a cousin, not that they were close, but still, they existed. She had a brother, but she didn’t know where he was or even if he was dead or alive.
As an undercover agent with the FBI, Adam had important work to do, work that often put him in danger and out of immediate contact. She’d learned to be self-sufficient.
“You have the scar,” the stranger said.
The flesh on her thigh tingled. “I’ve had that since I was a child.”
“I know. Since you were three,” he said.
Honey’s mouth gaped. How had he known that?
“It’s time to go,” Bert interjected, checking the time, then moving toward the door. “Do you need help getting to your room?”
“No, thanks.” The stranger turned his probing gaze back to her. “Are you off work now?”
She nodded warily.
“Good. We need to talk.” He pulled on his boots and rose in one fluid motion, standing a good six inches over Bert. “How about something to eat? Your friend can join us.” He pointed to the security guard.
“I’m going home,” Bert said in no uncertain terms.
“Me, too.” She edged toward the door.
The stranger frowned, then reached into his back pocket and brought out his wallet. To her surprise, he showed them a badge. “Zackary Nicholas Dalton,” he introduced himself.
Bert studied the badge. “You’re a deputy sheriff? From Idaho?”
“Right. I had official business here, which is finished. I’d planned to start home in the morning, uh, this morning.” He spoke to her. “I really need to talk to you before I go. This is serious.”
Seeing Bert check the time again, Honey shook her head. “I’m beat. And I’m not your cousin.”
“You could be. Do you remember where you were born? Or who your parents were?”
His words gave her pause. She and Adam had been orphaned when she was three and her brother thirteen. Their father had been killed in a bar shoot-out through no fault of his own; he and a friend happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Two years later their mother had died of a rare antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
“Well?” the lawman demanded.
“Of course I do,” she said firmly.
“Are they alive?”
She stopped, startled by the question, her eyes locking with the stranger’s.
“Ah,” he said, reading her correctly. “They’re not.”
“That…that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Do you remember them?” the deputy persisted.
“Not my father, but I remember my mother. I do,” she said when he raised straight dark eyebrows over skeptical eyes. “A few things.”
“How old were you when she died?”
Honey nearly answered, but stopped in time. Her past was none of this man’s business.
Bert gestured impatiently. “Let’s go.” He ushered them from the holding room, slammed the door, then gazed at her in uncertainty.
“Go home,” she told the guard. “I’ll be fine.”
“Where can we talk?” the visiting deputy asked, blocking her escape with the hand holding the bucket of quarters.
“We can’t.” She hurried after the guard. “Leave me alone, or I’ll call security again.”
“Listen, I know this sounds weird, but my cousin really does have a three-pointed scar on her leg. She fell on broken glass when she was three. A few months later she was taken from the scene of a car wreck. That was shortly before her fourth birthday.”
“Kidnapped. Her mother died in the wreck on a lonely stretch of highway. Some pervert took the child.”
Honey was aghast. “How long ago was this?”
“Twenty-two years. Tink would be twenty-six her next birthday. How old are you?”
A wave of panic rushed over her, as if she might indeed be this long-lost cousin, as if her own past had been a lie. She shook off the idea. “Twenty-five, but I’m not the person you’re looking for.” She heard the note of desperation in her voice. Her life was complicated enough without having to deal with this man’s search for his cousin. “I’m not. Really. It’s impossible.”
“Uncle Nick had a heart attack,” the deputy told her, sorrow darkening his eyes. “He kept muttering about Tink while he was unconscious. The family—I have twin brothers and three cousins—decided to try to find her. Are you sure about your past?”
“Well…yes. I’m sorry about your uncle,” she said sincerely.
“Yeah, he’s the greatest,” he said, his eyes looking her over as if searching for some truth that should be evident. “He took in six orphans and raised us as his own. Even after losing his wife and child, his care for us never faltered, not once.”
His tale was similar to her own story, yet so different. As orphans, she and Adam had lived with their only relative, an aunt who had never wanted them and had never let them forget it. Honey sighed and blocked the thought.
“I’m really sorry. I have to go.” She hurried off, leaving the handsome stranger watching her with a thoughtful look in his gorgeous blue eyes.
At her one-room studio apartment, she prepared for bed, aware of the weariness that seemed to pulsate from every bone in her body. Clomping around in stiletto heels for several hours was extremely tiring. She hated the smoke and noise of the casino, too. In fact, there was very little she enjoyed about her life at the moment.
For some reason, the image of the handsome lawman came to her—the confidence of his smile, the humor in his eyes, the love he obviously had for his uncle. She sensed an innate integrity in him, the same as her brother had, and kindness…
Unexpected tears burned her eyes, startling her. Good heavens, she really was going off the deep end since encountering the deputy with the heavenly eyes.
Ah, well, this, too, would pass. Besides, she wasn’t normally a crybaby. Neither tears nor wishes had ever changed a thing in her life.
After brushing her teeth, she got out her laptop computer and checked her e-mails.
Her breath stopped momentarily when she saw the coded one from her brother. She quickly opened the mail, which appeared to be an advertisement of an upcoming sale. The date and hours of the sale were a reference to the time her brother would call. That he used this method of contact meant he was in deep, deep cover and in danger.
And so was she.
No matter what happened she wouldn’t return to a “safe” house. She’d lived there just before leaving L.A. Being “safe” had been the same as being in prison—no visitors, no calls, no going out.
Her aunt’s favorite punishment had been to lock her and Adam in the bedroom and leave them for hours. As a child, Honey had often worried that they would be forgotten. Adam had told her they had to be brave, so she’d learned to conceal the fear. But it had been scary.
She closed her eyes as the memories swamped her with the old familiar anguish. After a moment she resolutely shook off the despair. Adam could take care of himself. She could do the same. No one would ever associate a bleached-blond waitress with the real Hannah Smith.
No! She couldn’t think of herself as Hannah Smith. She was using a fake name with a fake ID. For now and the foreseeable future, she was Honey Carrington.
The deputy was waiting at the service entrance when Honey arrived for work at six the next evening. She hesitated when she saw him, recalling a movie about a stalker she’d recently seen on TV.
“It’s okay,” he said, smiling and holding up his hands. “I’m harmless. I wondered if we could talk.”
“I thought you were on your way home.”
He gave her a smile. “Well, the best-laid plans and all that.” He fell into step beside her. “Do you have time for a cup of coffee?”
She clenched her hands as indecision ate at her. Her brother had called. He wanted her in a safe house on the East Coast. She’d refused. He’d been furious with her.
His cover had been blown a month ago. That was why she’d had to give up her position with the dance troupe that had brought her from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to perform at the casino theater and take on the disguise as a waitress.
In a scandal that appeared to be larger than the Rampart case, the FBI had been called in by the LAPD chief of Internal Affairs to infiltrate a police crime ring. Her brother had drawn the assignment.
Now the gang knew of her and wanted to use her to force Adam into the open, according to his contact within the rogue-cop group. He had warned her succinctly of what would happen if either of them was found.
Naturally she would do whatever it took to protect her brother. The stranger was a cop, but far removed from the L.A. crime scene. He offered the perfect escape. Did she dare take it?
Adam thought she should. He’d checked out the deputy and found him to be legit. Apparently the Daltons were a very respected ranching family that went back for generations, according to Adam’s research, which he’d reported to her an hour ago.
If she wouldn’t accept protection, then she should go where no one would easily find her. Who, Adam had argued, would think to look for her in Idaho? He’d made a good point. She’d thought of little else during her time off.
“Yes, I have a few minutes,” she said to the deputy, putting off the moment when she had to make the difficult decision.
“Can you find the coffee shop? I seem to go around in circles here.”
She had to smile. “The casino’s designed that way. You have to go past the slots and gaming tables to get anywhere else.” She led the way to the café. “Tell me about your cousin,” she said when they were seated.
“There isn’t much to tell. She disappeared when she was three and a half from a car wreck, which killed her mother. Tink was nowhere to be found when help arrived.”
“Maybe she wandered away and got lost,” Honey said. A vision of the child roaming dazed and confused through a dark forest, perhaps searching for her father, flashed on her mental screen. Sympathy stirred in her.
He shrugged. “All we know for sure is that someone else was at the site. The cops found tire tracks and boot prints, a child’s prints next to them. A man in a pickup had come through town that morning. He stopped for gas. The station owner recalled his license plate was from California. How did you get the scar on your leg?”
Honey blinked at the change in subject. “My aunt said my cousin pushed me and I fell on a broken bottle.”
Honey nodded, her mind still on the little girl who had disappeared. She knew what it was like to feel lost and bewildered. Abandoned. It was a scary thing for a child.
“What happened to your parents?” he demanded, leaning forward over the table to stare at her intently.
“My father was accidentally shot in a bar. My mother got sick a couple of years later. It was a long time ago,” she said to forestall the questions she could see coming. “I wasn’t quite four. I don’t remember anything except my mother left for the hospital and never came back.”
“The woman who said she was your aunt—”
“She is my aunt.”
“Does she have children?”
Honey tried to figure out what he was driving at. “A son. He’s six years older than I am. Aunt May couldn’t have more children.”
“Hmm,” the deputy said as if this was significant.
“What if she wanted another child, a little girl to complete her family? What if she was willing to pay?” the deputy asked earnestly.
Honey kept a straight face. Her aunt had hated having her and her brother in the house. She’d hated spending any money on them, even though she got a check from welfare each month to support the two orphans.
“I don’t think that’s likely,” she told him wryly, wishing she had been the loved and wanted little girl his words described, wishing she could have had a family like this man apparently had. If wishes were wings…
“Come to the ranch with me and talk to Uncle Nick,” he urged. “You might remember something. If nothing else, I can promise you a great vacation. Mountain air. Beautiful views. Quiet. No one to bother you.”
Did he realize how appealing that sounded? “I have to work.” She paused, knowing she couldn’t use him for her own purposes but already regretting the loss. “I’m sorry about your cousin. I hope you find her.”
He let her go, his expression thoughtful. Honey was aware of the scar on her thigh as she walked away.
Idaho. She’d studied maps of it last night. The state seemed far from everything she’d ever known. He, or the uncle he was so fond of, had a ranch there. It sounded like heaven, a sanctuary for the weary soul.
Peace. Quiet. Safety.
Oh, yes, she was tempted, so very tempted.
By ten o’clock Zack knew the layout of the casino and had a plan. If there was the slightest chance the waitress was Tink—and in addition to the scar, there was enough about her past to justify the possibility—he couldn’t leave without trying to convince her to come home with him and at least talk to Uncle Nick.
He waited for her next to the locker-room door where he hoped she would soon appear. It should be her dinner hour about now.
“Ah,” he said in satisfaction. His hunch had paid off. She was right on time. “Hi,” he said when she came near.
Her head jerked up. One hand flew to her throat. For a split second she looked like a frightened deer caught in car headlights, then all signs of expression disappeared behind the heavy mask of makeup she wore.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said. “The deputy.”
“Zack Dalton,” he reminded her. “The cousin.” He shot her a questioning glance, wondering if she would tell him her name or call for the security guards.
She hesitated, then spoke firmly, as if making up her mind it was okay to share the information. “My name is Hannah Carrington. I’m called Honey.”
“Honey,” he repeated, keeping his tone neutral. “Are you ready for supper? I’m starved.”
“Are you joining me?” she asked with a certain wry amusement he found encouraging. Her lips, when she smiled, were delectable, like ripe cherries.
He grinned. “Yes, if you don’t mind. My treat. I cashed in the quarters, so I’m flush. I, uh, also have an idea I’d like to discuss with you.”
Once again seated in the coffee shop, he studied his companion while she glanced over the menu. Her absurd eyelashes cast long shadows over her rouged cheeks. He wondered how Uncle Nick would react to this “painted” woman.
Humor mingled with worry. The soft, full mouth with its sweet sensitivity belied the toughness implied by the makeup and costume. Which one was the true Honey Carrington?
His curiosity was piqued by the contradictions. Even if she wasn’t Tink, he wanted to know more about this woman of unexpected depth and mystery.
Depth and mystery? He shook his head at his musings. Except for the scar, he really didn’t know a solid fact about her, other than what she said.
After they’d ordered, he inhaled deeply, then began his argument to persuade her to return home with him. “I think I told you my uncle Nick had a heart attack recently?”
“Yes. That’s why you’re looking for his daughter.”
“Right. I think you could be her.” He held up a hand to forestall denials. “You have the scar. Both your parents are dead. You were raised by someone claiming to be a relative. What if she wasn’t your aunt? What if you were taken from your mother’s side and sold on the baby black market?”
But she no longer sounded so certain, he noted. “So maybe something went wrong, and you didn’t end up at the place you were supposed to go. Maybe the kidnapper needed to lie low and deposited you with a relative or girlfriend for safekeeping, but never came back. Where were you born?”
“California,” she said, then glared at him for slipping the question in when she wasn’t expecting it.
“You’re sure of that?”
She lifted those fake eyelashes enough to stare at him in confusion. Her eyes were blue, light blue with silvery flecks. His heart upped its beat. Tink had had blue eyes.
“My aunt,” she began in a low voice, then paused. “My aunt had to get a birth certificate for me when I went to school. It was certified by a sworn statement from her. She said I was born at home, with a midwife, instead of a doctor. Apparently the birth wasn’t registered at the time.”
A shot of excitement zinged along Zack’s nerves. The lack of a usual birth certificate clenched the matter as far as he was concerned. “You have to come to the ranch and talk to Uncle Nick. I’ll pay you. Five hundred dollars, free and clear, for two weeks of your time. You’ll have room and board, of course.”
He couldn’t tell anything from her silence.
“Look, it may not come to anything, but if there’s a chance you’re Tink, we have to take it. Uncle Nick might not survive another heart attack. If you are his daughter, wouldn’t you want to know?”
The lush mouth trembled for just a second before she crimped her lips firmly against each other. “Yes,” she said in an almost inaudible voice. “I’d want to know.”
He considered his anemic savings. “Today’s August the sixth. I’ll give you a thousand if you’ll stay the rest of the month.”
“I don’t want your money,” she told him seriously. “Tink is your cousin’s name?”
“Theresa. She insisted on Tinker Bell, so we started calling her Tink for short. It stuck.”
“You remember her?”
“Sure. I was around eight when she disappeared.”
Honey nodded and bent her head to study the table as if she might actually be considering his proposition. Zack waited for her to think it through. While he had his own doubts about bringing a strange woman home, this was for Uncle Nick. He couldn’t ignore the opportunity fate had thrown his way.
He saw her chest rise and fall. Bleakness darkened her eyes, then she said softly, “All right. I’ll go with you. To Idaho, right?”
“Yes.” He hooked an arm over the back of the chair and sighed in relief, unaware of the tension until that moment. “It isn’t the end of the world,” he assured her when she looked so oddly woebegone, or was it worried? Curiosity got the best of him. “Why have you decided to go?”
“I hate working in the casino.”
The emotion underlying the statement spoke of truth. He wondered what he would have done if she’d refused. He could hardly kidnap her.
He smiled. He didn’t have to worry about the next step now that she’d agreed with his plan. “What kind of notice do you need to give the casino?”
“Thirty minutes,” she said with a cynicism touched with some other emotion he couldn’t name. “People come and go at the drop of a hat here.”
“Great. Can you be ready to leave at six in the morning?” At her startled glance, he said, “Okay, seven. Can you be ready by then? Where shall I pick you up?”
“I’ll meet you in the lobby here. At six.” She dropped her hands into her lap so the waitress could place her order on the table. “I’ll need the address and phone number of the ranch. So I can tell my aunt,” she added as if he’d questioned the need to know.
“No problem.” He gave her the information. Picking up his hamburger, he bit into it hungrily. Lady Luck had finally smiled on him.
If this woman really was his long-lost cousin, Uncle Nick would be in high alt, as the old man liked to say.
But what if she wasn’t? What if she was playing some game with them, hoping to cash in somehow? Huh, she’d refused the money he’d offered, so what could she want? And he’d been doing all the pursuing, so it was unlikely she’d planned it all. And let’s face it, con artists weren’t likely to target Idaho ranchers or deputy sheriffs!
He weighed the evidence. She had the scar, her parents were gone, her birth certificate was questionable, so there was the possibility that she was legitimate. For Uncle Nick’s sake, he had to take that chance.
At five-thirty on Sunday morning, Honey left all her worldly possessions, which were crammed into two suitcases and one duffel, behind the supervisor’s desk in the office that adjoined the employee lounge. No one was in at the moment, since it wasn’t time for a shift change.
She didn’t want any of her co-workers to spot her, dressed as she was in baggy pants, a tank top and a long-sleeved shirt, her hair hidden under a baseball cap with a skimpy dark-haired fake ponytail attached. She thought she looked enough like a boy to pass a casual glance, but she wasn’t sure about a direct perusal from those who knew her.
Keeping her head low, she left the lounge and hurried to the elevators. At Zack’s room, she slipped a note under the door.
It opened at once. “What is it?” he asked.
Startled, she could only stare up at him for a second, then she ducked her head. “I was told to deliver a message to this room, sir,” she said in a deeper tone than her normal one. She gestured toward the letter.
“Wait,” he ordered.
She froze in place.
He picked the letter up, tore open the envelope and read it, a suspicious frown on his face. Finished, he handed her two casino tokens worth a dollar each.
“No reply,” he said, and closed the door.
She let her breath out slowly, then returned to the elevator. After leaving her employee badge and a note telling her supervisor she had to leave town due to a family emergency, she carried her luggage to the service door.
Zack appeared right on time. “Where is she?” he asked.
“I’m to take you to her,” Honey told him. She pulled her baseball cap a little lower when he tilted his head and tried to study her face.
“Uh, this is her luggage,” she added.
He nodded, hoisted the duffel and left her to deal with the two bags. She followed at his heels, taking longer steps in an insouciant and masculine—she hoped—manner.
They stored the bags in the back of a black SUV. She climbed in the passenger side, fastened her seat belt and slipped on sunglasses. She noted the protective bullet-proof glass and chain-link-type divider between the front and back seats. For a second she wondered if he would order her into the rear of the vehicle, where prisoners rode.
The deputy got in, started the engine, then eased into the sparse traffic along the strip.
Honey breathed a sigh of relief. Surely no one would expect her to leave Vegas in a vehicle emblazoned with the badge of a sheriff’s department on its sides.
“Okay, where is she?” Zack demanded.
“Here,” she said. She removed the sunglasses.
Zack stopped at the red light and turned to his passenger. The youngster he’d taken for a boy gave him a defiant grin.
The silvery-blue eyes met his. The lashes and eyebrows were golden brown. A tiny mole dotted the corner of her mouth, which was totally bare of makeup, as was the rest of her face. She looked fresh and young and entirely foreign to the waitress from the casino.
“What’s going on?” he asked, feeling he’d been set up.
“Nothing,” she said innocently.
Too innocently. He knew a scam when he saw one. “That getup is certainly different from your usual.”
“I had to wear the casino costume. It was part of the job. Now I can dress in my own clothes.”
The light turned and he drove on. “Those are your usual clothes? Tell me another one before that one gets cold.”
Fury washed over him, but he wasn’t usually a hot-tempered person. An effective cop had to consider the facts from a cool distance. He reached a logical conclusion.
They were on the highway now. The Sunday-morning traffic was heavier as people went to work in the resort town. He pulled off the road onto the shoulder just before an exit ramp and stopped. With the engine idling, he said, “What are you running away from?”
He had to give her credit for control. Her clasped hands tightened slightly, but that was her only reaction.
“I’m not,” she said.
“Okay. Who are you running from?”
“Either tell me, or I’ll put you out right here and you can walk back to the casino.”
The hands tightened again, then relaxed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We made a deal—the rest of the month at your uncle’s ranch. That’s what you said.”
He locked eyes with her. If it hadn’t been for that ever-so-slight tremor in the luscious mouth, he would have called off the whole thing. However, he felt a warning was called for. “If you try to bring any harm to my family, I’ll ship you out so fast your head will spin.”
“How could I do that? I don’t even know them.” She glared at him. “If you’ve changed your mind, the least you can do is take me back to my apartment before my landlady finds the note telling her I’m gone.”
“You don’t plan on coming back here?”
“It’s a big world. I’ve only seen California and Nevada so far…and maybe Idaho if what you say is true.”
This hard-edged, fresh-faced person was certainly at odds with the heavily made-up waitress who’d been concerned about him last night. More contradictions.
He put the police SUV in gear and headed north once more. Home was a sixteen-hour journey away. He planned to make it before midnight.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Honey mocked her morbid thoughts as the miles peeled away under the tires. Other drivers, upon realizing the SUV was a sheriff’s vehicle, slowed noticeably. It was evident they weren’t sure of the authority of an out-of-state cop, but they weren’t going to take any chances.
At midmorning they stopped for gas and picked up coffee and rolls at a fast-food drive-through. She watched the passing scenery, fascinated with the desert and colorful mountains.
When she asked about their travel plans, he told her they would follow Highway 93 to Twin Falls, pick up I-84 until they reached Boise, switch to state roads 55 and 95, then the county roads, which would take them to the ranch. He handed her a map from the door pocket.
Curious, she asked questions about the remote ranch. He answered each of them, painting an idealistic picture of his life with a stern but loving uncle and cousins galore. By the time she ran out of questions and his replies were growing shorter, she was filled with an envy that fueled the loneliness she felt as she traveled with the handsome deputy into the unknown.
For the rest of the day, she traced their route on the map as they drove north. They pulled into truck stops for gas and meals, first lunch, then dinner. As time passed, she couldn’t help but feel she was on some grand adventure that would take her to…where?
Glancing at her companion, a tremor rippled through her like the warning quiver of an earthquake ready to roar up from the bowels of the earth. His perusal said he didn’t quite trust her. She didn’t blame him.
She fought a guilty conscience for taking advantage of his offer, knowing she wasn’t the cousin he sought. However, she had to protect her brother, and that surely outweighed Zack’s concern for his uncle. Didn’t it? Anyway, he was the one who’d insisted she come with him, and truly she didn’t mean the Daltons any harm.
While he drove, she studied him covertly. He was an attractive man. He wore no ring and had mentioned no wife in his list of family members, so she assumed he wasn’t attached. If circumstances had been different, they might have met, fallen in love, even married.
Ah, she’d always been a romantic. A sigh, filled with sadness she couldn’t quite fathom, worked its way out of her. At his quick look, she managed a smile.
Life was what it was, she reminded herself sharply. All the wishing and hoping and dreaming she’d ever done had never changed her fate, not one iota.
As the day grew longer, she became weary. She’d had no sleep the previous night due to her preparations for leaving. Her head dropped forward, startling her as she drifted into sleep. At last she asked, “Are we going to travel all night?”
“We’ll stop at the next town if you’re tired.”
“How far are we from the ranch?”
“Four or five hours.”
“I can make it. Are we in Idaho yet?”
She fell silent as tension crept up her neck. Whatever happened, she was committed to this course. For a moment she felt the way she had the day the social worker left her and Adam at her aunt’s house, only this time she didn’t have her brother’s hand to cling to. She exhaled shakily. She was really, truly on her own.
Darkness closed around them. She glimpsed the sign that welcomed them to Idaho as it flashed past. At one point she heard his voice, but the words didn’t register. “What?”
“You can let the seat back a little,” he said more loudly. “The barrier keeps it from going very far.”
She did so. The act was merely a blink on her consciousness, then it was gone.
Sometime later she was woken by a curse. She grasped warm flesh and felt the contraction in his thigh muscles as he braked, then the wild skid of the SUV as it swung in an arc. The rear end slid past the front and they came to an abrupt halt facing back the way they had come.
“What is it?” she asked, releasing her hold on him.
His snort was sardonic. “There’s water across the road. Sit tight.” He removed his shoes and socks, got out and checked the depth of the water.
Cold air swirled into the warm vehicle. Rain splattered in waves across it. She shivered and pulled her shirt closer around her. August in Idaho was definitely cooler than in Las Vegas.
The deputy returned, letting in another blast of chilly air. She looked around. There wasn’t a house or building in sight, not even a distant light to indicate civilization.
Hail suddenly hit the windshield. “It’s cold,” she said. She was shivering.
“Yeah. We’re caught in a freak storm. We’re stuck until the water goes down.”
Her escort dried his feet on a handkerchief, put on his shoes and socks, then restarted the SUV. He parked off the road at a wide point that looked out on a shallow valley and a long range of mountains. The landscape all around them was lit by flashes of lightning.
She could detect evergreen trees and the ever-present desert sage. Along the edge of the road, Russian thistle and wallflowers formed soft mounds that constantly changed their shapes in the brisk wind. She shivered as if someone was walking on her grave.
“What do you mean, stuck?” she finally asked.
“As in, we can’t go on.”
“Well, let’s go back,” she said, wary of the storm and the dark.
“Where?” His tone was sardonic.
“The last town. We can stay in a motel until the storm is past.”
He shook his head. “Sorry, but the last town was a hole in the wall with one quick-stop market-gas station combo, which, I might add, wasn’t open.”
“No motel?” she asked. Something akin to panic shot through her. She forced herself to stillness.
“Nothing.” He slammed his fist on the steering wheel, the perfect picture of male irritation.
After a couple of minutes of silence, she dared ask, “What now?” The fact that not one car was visible in any direction wasn’t lost on her.
“There’s a town fifteen or twenty miles down the road. That’s a far piece to walk for help, even if we got across the flood over the road.” He glanced at her. “The current is swift, but I could probably make it.”
The thought of being left behind caused the near-panic to stir painfully. “Maybe the water will subside soon.”
“Probably not before morning.”
He picked up the handset of a police scanner, his manner resigned but not particularly worried. All she heard was the crackle of static with a sharper crack at each flash of lightning on the horizon as he turned the dial. He tried calling several times, but got no answer.
When the lightning hit close, he turned the radio off. “Too dangerous in this storm,” he muttered.
“I have my cell phone.” She got it out of her bag. When she tried to reach an operator in order to locate a nearby town and, she hoped, a place to stay, she got mostly static and faintly heard a recording that told her she was out of range. “Out of range.”
He didn’t appear surprised. “Yeah. There’s nothing open now, anyway.” He yawned and stretched. “We’ll have to wait it out. Luckily the land drains fast. I have a sleeping bag.”
With that enigmatic statement, he got out, opened the rear door and climbed in. He laid the rear seats flat and spread a puffy bag over the cargo space.
“I can move our luggage so you can curl up back here and sleep,” he told her.
Silently she watched while he stacked her three bags and one other against the back of the front seat.
“Sorry, no pillows,” he said. He twisted and looked at her. “Your bed’s ready.”
The cold was getting to her now, and shivers racked her. “Where are you going to sleep?”
“In the front seat.”
She immediately saw that this wasn’t fair. “You’re taller than I am. You take the back and I’ll stay in the front.”
He yanked a heavy parka from his bag and pulled it on. “I want to keep an eye on things. Excuse me,” he said, then headed into the trees with a flashlight.
When he returned, he handed the light to her, got inside and slammed the door. She sat there for a minute, then also headed for the trees.
The rain had lightened to a fine mist, but the wind was still fierce. Upon returning, she hesitated, then climbed into the back of the vehicle since he already had his legs stretched along the bench-type front seat.
Even with the sleeping bag, she was aware of the cold seeping into the truck now that the engine was no longer supplying them with heat. The wind rocked the SUV like a dog shaking a bone as it moaned through sparse trees, across the road and over the ledge overlooking the valley. Other than the wind, no sounds disturbed the night.
She wondered where her brother was and if he was safe in bed somewhere. She thought of her aunt, who hadn’t wanted two extra children to raise, and her cousin, who had tormented her until Adam bloodied his nose one day. She remembered her mother, who used to sing her to sleep with soft lullabies and old church songs.
Tears pushed upward from that deep place where she’d buried all painful memories. She couldn’t afford to think of home or family or the things she didn’t have.
Instead, she gazed at the night sky as the storm passed, heading east across the high desert, which appeared desolate to her eyes. A person could die out here and no one would know. Adam might never find out what had happened—
Stop it! There was no use in growing morbid. So she felt lonelier than a howling coyote, so what? There were worse things—like being dead.
She forced her eyes closed. Her muscles ached from fatigue, and her feet were slowly turning to ice. She slept, but she woke up cold and whimpering in fear.
“Honey? Wake up. You’re dreaming,” an oddly familiar voice told her.
“A nightmare,” she said in a hoarse whisper. “I was in the Arctic or somewhere. It was so cold. I thought I was freezing. My feet still feel like ice cubes,” she said, putting a humorous twist to the words.
“Do you have a coat or something?”
She retrieved her old trench coat from her duffel and slipped it on, then pulled the sleeping bag up to her neck.
“Hand me my bag, will you?” he requested. “I can’t sleep without a pillow.”
She heard the chain divider rattle, then in the dim light of a pale moon she saw he’d let one side down. She handed his nylon bag to him. He squashed it until he was satisfied with its shape, then snuggled down.
Zack was aware of his passenger’s unease and wariness. He knew fear could produce a chill and regretted the trip had turned into more of an adventure than he’d expected. “I’ll warm the truck.”
He cranked the engine and turned the air vents so the warm air would circulate into the back. He flicked on the radio and ran the tuner through the channels. Nothing.
“Has the water gone down?” she asked.
After a few minutes he heard her sigh and sensed the relaxing in her vigil. She was asleep.
A spark shot through him, causing heat to spear through his groin. It had been a while since he’d slept with a woman in a space this small. Not that they were actually sleeping together in a physical sense. But he was aware of her.
Work had kept him busy. Summers were harried because of tourists getting themselves into some jam or another. Winter heralded hunters who got themselves lost. A spring blizzard had brought its own woes. He hadn’t thought about dating in months, much less more interesting things.
So here he was, sleeping in the truck with a woman he’d found in the casino capital of the world, bringing her home to possibly become part of his family. He was worried about that. He didn’t want Uncle Nick to be hurt in case they were wrong to trust her.
He went over the facts. Gone was the shapely, thickly painted waitress. In her place was a slender female who had actually fooled him into thinking she was a boy. Well, only for a short time. Without makeup, she was prettier and softer-looking.
That was what bothered him. There was something vulnerable about her, as if she needed lots of TLC.
Huh, he’d always been a sucker for every lost dog or cat to cross his path.
Pushing his lumpy pillow against the door for a back rest, he stared into the night. From over the far peaks, he heard the rumble of the passing storm. He hoped it wouldn’t rain anymore so they could get on their way at the crack of dawn.
Honey stirred and gave a slight sound in her sleep. A bolt of hunger went through him like the heat lightning on the eastern horizon. Now he was more than hot. He was rock-hard and tense with needs that weren’t going to be met in the near future.
Damnation, she might be his cousin, he reminded his libido. Since he hadn’t grown up with her, it would be hard to think of her as such if that turned out to be the case.
If not, there were other possibilities.
Waitress, tomboy, lover. There was a certain irony in the chain of thought, but at the present he didn’t find it humorous. Too much need raged through him.
From the other side of the seat, she moved again, pushing the sleeping bag aside as she grew warm. He cut the engine. The silence closed around them. He heard her sigh.
An electrical current shot through every nerve in his body. The dark felt sweetly intimate as he listened to the wind outside and the quiet sound of her breathing. If he woke her now, who would she be? Waitress? Cousin? Tomboy? Or lover?
None of the above, he mocked the thought.
It was his last thought before he fell asleep, the odd bliss of some forgotten happiness filling his dreams.
Honey awoke with a groan. Her companion chuckled. She realized his stirring had disturbed her.
“The truck makes for an uncomfortable bed,” he mentioned cheerfully. “Even with carpet and a sleeping bag.”
“I noticed.” She peered at the faint light in the sky behind the hills. “What time is it?”
“Late. A little after five,” he added when she frowned at him. “I want to get home before noon.”
“Work,” he explained patiently. “I have to take you to the ranch, then head back to town.”
“You wouldn’t be going to the ranch if it weren’t for me, would you?”
“You don’t live there with your uncle?”
“Not all the time. I have a room in town.”
Combing her fingers through her hair, she watched him get out and walk to the rear of the SUV.
“Sorry about the cold,” he said, opening the rear door. He removed, then set up a little camping stove, poured water from a plastic jug and put it on to boil.
“Tea or coffee?” he called.
“Sugar? Powdered milk?”
“One sugar, please.” She cautiously pushed the covers down, creeping tentatively from the warmth of the sleeping bag. The temperature felt frigid to her.
“I’ll bring it to you.”
When he handed her the cup, she was almost too surprised to thank him. “It’s nice to be waited on.”
“Enjoy it while you can. It isn’t my usual style.”
She sipped the hot brew while he checked the road and declared it safe. The water was no more than six inches deep now. She retrieved her travel kit, freshened up, then paid a visit to the other side of the trees.
“You seem to think of everything—sleeping bag, stove, coffee, tea,” she said as they finished the last of the coffee, both of them in the front seat again.
“A person would be foolish to live in the mountains and not be prepared to wait out a storm.”
“Do you get lots of snow in Idaho?”
He grinned in that special way he had—rather humorous, more than a little sexy and definitely intriguing. It was his smile that had first suggested she could trust him. He’d rewarded her faith by being a perfect gentleman last night.
“Not as much as some places, but enough. Put that parka on. It’s about thirty-six degrees this morning,” he told her. “I don’t want you catching a chill before I get you to the ranch. My gear doesn’t extend to nursing facilities.”
She sighed raggedly, grateful her trust hadn’t been misplaced. There were so few people she dared put her confidence in these days. This man was very…nurturing.
She considered the descriptive word and, while she sensed there was more, much more, to the handsome deputy, it was a reasonable assessment of him.
“Ready?” he asked.
She nodded and noticed his glance at her hair. Since she didn’t have to hide it under a cap, she’d left it down around her shoulders.
“You look very different from your casino appearance.”
Lifting her chin, she returned his cool appraisal. “That was for work.”
“Or to hide your identity from someone?”
Her heart lurched at his correct assessment. She started to reply, then thought better of it. When unsure of what to say, it was better to be silent. He studied her briefly, then started the truck and drove onto the pavement. Almost three hours later, they arrived at a small lake formed by a dam. A community nestled close by. She opened the map of the state and asked where they were.
“Lost Valley. The town serves the ranchers and the tourists taking the scenic route on their way to Yellowstone or the Tetons or, heading west, those going to Hells Canyon in the summer.”
In the winter, she imagined, the place must be like a deep freeze. She mused on what it would be like, being snowed in for days on end. Her gaze was drawn to Zack, and her heart gave another of those odd lurches.
“Dalton,” she said suddenly. “Wasn’t there a gang by that name in the Wild West days?”
“Yeah. There’s a connection, but we’re descended from the branch that had the good guys.”
His grin was infectious. Smiling, she studied the map again and then the peaks around them when they topped a hill west of the valley.
From this vantage point, she could see all the way down to Lost Valley and the tiny town of the same name tucked in close to the reservoir. The valley was 5000 feet high, according to the map. He-Devil Mountain to the north was 9393 feet high. They were someplace between the two and still climbing.
“We’re nearly home,” he told her.
She gazed all around the panoramic scene of peaceful valley and majestic peaks, the lake and evergreen trees. “It’s beautiful here,” she said. “The most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”
He gave her a skeptical glance.
“Well, I’ve only been in Southern California and then Nevada, actually only in Las Vegas, until yesterday,” she admitted. “But I’ve always been fascinated by mountains and how they formed, the vast upheavals of the earth and the forces of nature and all that.”
“Yeah, it’s fascinating,” he agreed.
She couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or sincere. Keeping her thoughts to herself, she picked out more odd names on the map. There was a She-Devil Mountain, the mate to He-Devil, she decided, smiling.
“What’s funny?” he asked.
“The names. Seven Devils Mountains. He-Devil. She-Devil. Are there others?”
“There’s one called the Devil’s Tooth. Another is Mount Ogre. Mmm, the Tower of Babel, Mount Baal, the Goblin. Those are the official seven. On the ranch, we have an escarpment with a flat boulder on it that we named the Devil’s Dining Room.”
“Does your Uncle Nick live there alone?”
“No. My twin brothers live on the ranch. My cousins live in Boise but visit often.”
“How many cousins did you say you have?”
A frisson swept along Honey’s scalp. Zack, his two brothers, the three cousins and Uncle Nick. That made seven. She inhaled sharply as her imagination leaped from the seven Daltons to the Seven Devils Mountains.
As if reading her thoughts, he said, “No, the mountains weren’t named in honor of my family.”
Looking at his devilish grin, she wondered about that.
Honey realized she would never find her way back to town as they wound around hills and through canyons. At last they crossed a wooden bridge over a dry creek, and the land opened into a flat valley ringed by tree-covered ridges.
Nestled on a rise, protected in a curving sweep of pine trees, was a stone and split-log ranch house. “Rambling” described it perfectly. Wings spread out to each side of the central structure, which had a porch across its face.
“Home,” Zack said. “There’s Uncle Nick.”
An older man came out onto the porch. His hair was white and lay in an attractive wave sweeping back from his forehead just like his nephew’s. His face was tanned and lined. A tall man, as tall as Zack, his rangy frame retained the lanky appearance of youth. She estimated his age to be late sixties, early seventies.
“What happened to your parents?” she asked.
“They died when we were young.”
“My father and mother, plus my dad’s twin brother and his girlfriend, came home one year to visit, bringing us kids with them. They went out on the town one night. There was an avalanche and they never made it back. Since Uncle Nick was the only kin, he and Aunt Milly were saddled with six additional kids to raise.”
“Aunt Milly was the one who died in the accident? It was her little girl who was kidnapped?”
Honey considered the events that had occurred in his family. Like her, Zack was an orphan who had been taken in by a relative. She felt a bond with him, one of tragedy.
“I’m sorry about your parents and the others,” she said a bit stiffly, but sincerely.
“It was a long time ago.”
“How old were you?”
“Seven. I don’t remember much about it.”
The bleakness of his tone belied that. She started to ask him where he’d lived prior to coming to the ranch, but was forestalled when he parked and leaped out of the truck.
“Wait here,” he said, and slammed the door.
Her heart set up a cacophony as she watched him greet his uncle, then gesture toward the truck as he talked. The uncle stared at her. They talked some more. Finally Zack waved for her to join them.
Reluctantly she did so, then waited for the older man to denounce her as a liar and opportunist. He studied her, his eyes as blue as Zack’s, but shrewd with age. When he reached out and lifted her chin, she met his eyes.
He smiled. “So you think you might be Tink?”
She shook her head. “Your nephew thinks so. I’m Hannah Carrington. Everyone calls me Honey.”
“Zack told me about your circumstances,” the uncle said thoughtfully.
Her heart did a flip until she realized Zack couldn’t possibly know her real circumstances.
“Your parents are gone and you’ve lived with an aunt since you were three or thereabouts?” the old man added.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“There was a question about your birth certificate?”
“I’m sure that’s just one of those odd coincidences that occurs at times.” She tried to sound honest and yet unsure enough to maintain a question about her birth.
He patted her cheek, something she wouldn’t have normally appreciated, but that seemed comforting coming from this kindly old gentleman. Like the nephew, he was a caring person.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said in simple welcome. “Show her to the rose room, Zack. I’ll put lunch on the table.”
“Are you supposed to be up and cooking?” Zack asked.
“Don’t fuss,” the old man said amiably. “The doc said I have to walk an hour every day. I figure if I can walk, I can cook and clean up the house a little.”
Honey saw Zack’s chest rise and fall in an exasperated breath, but he said nothing as his uncle went inside.
“It’s hard to keep help out here,” Zack said to her, heading for the SUV. “It’s too far from town. We’ve had about a dozen housekeepers over the years. They stay six months, maybe a year, then the isolation gets to them.”
He handed her the duffel, tucked his nylon bag under one arm, then lifted out her two heavy suitcases.
Clenching a hand into a fist in a sudden spasm of panic, she followed him inside. Her feet seemed to be coated in lead as they entered the rustic dwelling.
They passed through a comfortably furnished living room and turned right into a hallway. He guided her past two open bedroom doors and went into a third one, the last in this wing of the house.
“This is lovely,” she said, feeling very much the deceptive interloper.
The room was twice as big as the other bedrooms they’d passed. It ran the depth of the wing and had a large sitting area that faced the front yard. A door opened onto a path from that side.
The windows flanking the bed looked out on a small backyard edged by towering trees that grew up a steep ridge, where a forest of firs and pines spread outward and upward over the land.
Zack paused. He looked at the bed, then back to her. His eyes seemed to darken. She felt some secret inner part of her expand painfully, pushing on her lungs so she couldn’t breathe all of a sudden. She couldn’t look away as tension arced between them.
Turning abruptly, he placed her bags on the floor in front of a double set of matching doors. He opened those to disclose a spacious closet. “The bathroom is next door. The dining room is on the other side of the kitchen. Can you be ready to eat in five minutes?”
After he left, her nerves calmed slightly. She slowly pivoted, taking in the wallpaper with the big pink roses and soft green leaves, the sparkling white beadboard that formed the wainscoting and the sturdy oak furniture. A lacy white bedspread interspersed with pink roses covered pale-green sheets on the queen-size bed.
The soft-rose decor wasn’t the sort a household of bachelors would choose. She wondered what woman had picked it out and felt a strange emotion stir in her breast. It took a moment, but she finally recognized it as envy.
Some girl had been lucky to have this room, she thought, fighting the harsh sting of longing as she went to the bathroom and freshened up before facing Zack and his uncle again. That girl had been cherished.
Inhaling carefully, she dried her face, combed her hair and returned to the middle of the house. Four men were busy putting food on the table.
She stopped, her mouth dry, feeling like a rabbit who’d stumbled into a den of wolves. Her feet stuck to the floor.
One of the men spotted her. “Hi. Come on in. We only look dangerous, but no one bites. Uncle Nick lost his teeth years ago, and we’re not allowed to devour pretty women.”
“I have all my own teeth,” Uncle Nick corrected his nephew balefully, then smiled at her, showing off what appeared to be a perfectly good set of natural teeth.
She managed a return smile of sorts.
Zack placed a bowl of mashed potatoes on the table. “Sit,” he said unceremoniously and held a chair for her. “This is Honey Carrington,” he said as if it was perfectly normal to show up with a strange woman in tow.
She sat and let out another careful breath. Zack took the chair beside her while the older man sat at the end of the table to her immediate right. The twins were opposite.
“I’m Trevor, the handsome twin,” the first man who’d spoken informed her, his manner friendly and easy. “That’s Travis. He’s the quiet, ugly one.”
“You look identical,” she said, smiling at his joke.
Travis chuckled while his twin clutched his chest as if wounded. “I’d hoped you could tell the difference,” Trevor said in complaint, then spoiled it with a grin.
“We’ll have a blessing,” Uncle Nick said.
Honey bowed her head when the men did. Uncle Nick thanked the Lord for bringing Honey to them and recounted other blessings. She felt such an impostor. A brief silence ensued, then the uncle said, “Amen.”
“Potatoes?” Zack asked, handing her the bowl.
She took a small serving of each dish as it was passed. There were several to go along with the meat loaf, so her plate ended up filled to the edges. She gazed at it in dismay, not sure she could swallow. She choked down a bite of everything.
“You don’t have to eat it all,” Uncle Nick said kindly.
“Thank you. It’s more than I realized. But everything is delicious,” she quickly added in case she hurt the uncle’s feelings with her lack of appetite.
“So, Zack says you may be our long-lost cousin,” Trevor began after a brief silence. “Where did he find you?”
“In Vegas,” Zack answered before she could. He smiled. “She brought me luck. She found a quarter I dropped. When I put it in the slot machine, I hit the jackpot for six hundred quarters.” He turned to her. “I meant to give you a big tip.”
Heat rose to her cheeks. “That’s okay.”
“A hundred and fifty dollars,” Travis, the quiet twin, commented. “You were lucky.”
“How much did you blow before you won?” the uncle asked shrewdly.
Zack grinned. “Twenty dollars.”
“Huh,” Uncle Nick said.
Honey wasn’t sure if the older man disapproved of the gambling. When he turned his startling blue eyes on her, she felt like a kid called on the carpet.
“Honey and I are going to talk after we eat,” he said. “Privately.”
Her chest actually hurt as she thought of the deception she was perpetrating. Although she wasn’t lying about her past, she’d cast enough doubt to leave the question of her origins open. She hadn’t mentioned her brother at all.
A sigh worked its way out of her. She had to protect Adam. He was her first concern.
Unexpectedly Uncle Nick patted her hand. His wise gaze seemed to peer right into her soul. Instead of feeling cornered, she felt comforted, as if he knew her troubles.
“You’re welcome in this house,” he said.
“Thank you.” Her voice trembled, a fact she couldn’t conceal. Honestly. In another minute she would dissolve into tears and confess all. Would they throw her out? Or would they take her under their wing like some stray kitten?
“Were you in Vegas on vacation?” Travis wanted to know.
She glanced at Zack, then said truthfully, “I was working as a cocktail waitress.”
“Ah,” the other twin said as if that explained a lot. Not a smidgen of condemnation entered his gaze.
She couldn’t stand it another second. Pushing her chair back, she stood abruptly. Four pairs of pure blue eyes stared up at her. “I…excuse me. I need to…to rest for a while.”
Coward and liar that she was, she fled to the pretty bedroom, closed and locked the door behind her, then flung herself on the lace coverlet, tears she wouldn’t let fall burning her eyes like hot coals. She’d never felt so miserable.
Zack shrugged when his brothers stared at him across the table. “Women,” he said in answer to their unvoiced questions. He turned to his uncle. “What do you think?”
Uncle Nick buttered a roll before glancing his way. “I think she needs to rest just as she said. What time did you make her get on the road this morning?”
“Early,” he admitted. Since he’d never been able to hide the truth from Uncle Nick, he told about the storm and having to spend the night in the truck.
“Ahh,” drawled Trevor softly.
Zack glared at his brother. “She might be our cousin,” he said by way of explaining their sleep had been of the most innocent variety.
“Maybe. Maybe not,” Trevor said thoughtfully.
Zack kept his mouth shut and finished his meal. The abundant and simple food was delicious compared to the fast food he’d consumed on the road.
After he and Honey had made it into a small town that morning, he’d bought doughnuts, milk and coffee for them at the gas-station mart while they filled up. He hadn’t thought to stop later for a more substantial breakfast.
“You want to talk to Honey now?” he asked Uncle Nick when the older man finished eating.
His uncle considered, then shook his head. “She might be asleep. I thought she looked tired.”
“Yeah. We left early yesterday and she didn’t get off work until two that morning. She didn’t sleep much last night, either. Nightmares,” he explained at his brothers’ identical glances.
“What made you think she was our cousin?” Travis, the quiet twin, asked.
Zack told them about his winnings and the accident that had caused him to drop the bucket of quarters. He vaguely described Honey’s outfit and how he’d just happened to notice the scar on her thigh. He didn’t say they’d both been on their knees picking up quarters at the time, his nose no more than six inches from her…well, it wasn’t necessary to go into fine detail.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve seen what those gals in Vegas wear,” Trevor agreed.
“You’ve never even been there,” Zack scoffed.
“I’ve seen movies,” the twin asserted, looking wise.
Zack refrained from punching him out, then wondered why he was getting so hot under the collar. There was no reason for him to defend Honey.
“Let the girl alone,” Uncle Nick said, putting an end to the conversation. “She’s probably taking a nap. I’ll talk to her later. Isn’t it time you boys got to work?”
The twins took their plates to the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher, then departed for the stable. Zack yawned and thought about a snooze himself.
He helped his uncle clear the table and clean up the kitchen, then Uncle Nick went to his room and Zack sprawled on the leather sofa in the living room, which had once been the entire cabin, built more than 150 years ago.
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