Authors: Sharon De Vita
“So tell me, what do you do on your day off?”
She laughed, reaching in the back pocket of her jeans for her house keys. “Well, the question might be what don’t I do?” She shook her head, inhaling long and deep of the fresh night air. It felt good after being cooped up inside all day. “Let’s see, tomorrow I’ll go on spider patrol.”
“Spider patrol?” he repeated with a lift of his eyebrow, making her laugh. “And what exactly is spider patrol?”
“Well,” she began thoughtfully, “this is the desert, Jesse, and we have lots of creepy-crawly things. Particularly spiders. Black widows. Scorpions and tarantulas. Now, I’m not a coward, but I’m also not partial to creepy things.” She grinned at him. “They give me the creeps,” she laughed, rubbing her hands up and down her arms at the thought. “They also make me screech and squeal like a hyena,” she admitted. “Not to mention that if Riley even sees one she has nightmares for weeks.” She paused to take a deep breath. “So once a month, at night, I go on spider patrol. I take a flashlight and go out into the backyard—accompanied by the largest, meanest-looking stick I can find, and using my flashlight I find the spiderwebs. Wherever they’ve made their webs are where the babies are—”
“And babies grow up to be big, right?” he asked, understanding completely.
“Absolutely. So, as long as I find and destroy the webs it keeps the spider population under control.”
“Do you do this every month?” he asked in surprise, realizing that in spite of her lighthearted recitation, this was clearly something she didn’t find particularly pleasant. But she was doing it for her daughter, he thought, feeling another burst of admiration for her. Overcoming her own fears to protect her child.
“At least,” she admitted. “No matter how late or how tired I am. I try to do it no less than every month.” She shrugged. “And I’m about due. I particularly want to do it now. The last thing I want along with all of Riley’s other fears about school is for her to see a spider and then start having nightmares.”
“I see,” he said quietly. “Okay, so what else do you do on your day off?”
“Well, I have to cram a lot into tomorrow, Jesse. But just because the next few weeks are going to be very hectic. I have to go grocery shopping for my own house. Then it’ll be a trip to the doctor with Riley to get her final checkup before she starts school.” Hannah shook her head. “It’s hard to believe she’s going to start school in less than two weeks.” She glanced affectionately at her daughter who was sleeping soundly in Jesse’s arms. “She’s growing up so fast,” Hannah said wistfully, feeling a tug in her heart.
She’d always known Riley would probably be her only child, and she’d thought she’d come to accept it. But knowing she’d never be able to have the big family she’d always desired and yearned for made her sad.
Being a mother had always been the most important, wonderful thing she’d ever done, and she loved it.
Still looking wistfully at her daughter, Hannah sighed, wishing things could be different for her, wishing for all the other things women her age wanted, like more children. A husband. A real family. Someone to lean on during tough times; someone to share things with during good times.
Surprised by her own thoughts, Hannah quickly shook the notion away. She certainly didn’t have time for self-pity or regrets. She had a beautiful daughter, a wonderful job and a very nice life. It should be more than enough.
“Riley and I will make a quick stop at the library to return some books and pick up new ones so I can read to her every night. Then we’ll hit the mall for some last-minute shopping for school clothes and a new pair of tennis shoes for her, and then it’s back home to do some chores around the house before dinner.”
Amazed, Jesse shook his head as they neared her house. “And that’s what you call a day off?”
She laughed. “Absolutely.”
They were standing in front of her house now. Jesse glanced up at the imposing white structure, now faded and forlorn. “Are you telling me you maintain this house all by yourself?”
She laughed, heading up the back-porch steps to unlock the door. When she hit the third step, it gave a long, ominous creak. “Either I do it, Jesse, or it doesn’t get done.” Hannah glanced at the house she’d grown up in. It wasn’t until she’d had Riley, a child of her own, that she’d actually starting thinking of this house as a home. Perhaps because it never had been before. She’d grown up in this house and had returned to Saddle Falls when she got pregnant, renting a small apartment in town. After her parents’ deaths when she learned they’d left the house to Riley in trust, Hannah had moved back to her childhood home with her own daughter, determined to make it a
home. “Do you mind carrying her up to bed?” Hannah whispered as she swung open the door and stepped into the darkness of the mudroom. Quickly, she flipped on a light, then led Jesse through the house and up the stairs.
“Her bedroom is right there, at the end of the hall.” Walking ahead of him, Hannah was already pulling stuffed animals and dolls off the bed when Jesse laid Riley down.
“Uncle Jesse?” Riley whispered sleepily as her mother pulled off her tennis shoes and set them on the floor.
“Yes, darlin’?” He sat down on the bed next to her, brushing her hair out of her eyes. Gently, he reached up and freed her hair from their pigtails.
“Can you come over to play tomorrow?”
Smothering a smile, Jesse glanced up at Hannah. “Well, darlin’, your mama seems to have a full day planned. I don’t reckon she’s going to have time to…uh…play with me what with spider patrol, shopping and going to the doctor.”
“Please?” The pleading in the child’s eyes caught his heart. Riley managed to lift herself on one elbow and motioned him closer with one finger. “Mama’s afraid of spiders,” she whispered.
“Is that a fact?” Jesse said.
Riley nodded sleepily. “They make her screech and run.”
Banking a smile at the image, Jesse tucked the blanket up higher on Riley. “Well then, darlin’, I reckon I’d best better come over then, don’t you think? We sure don’t want your mama screeching and running, now, do we?” he whispered, making the child giggle. “Why, she just might scare those spiders to death.”
Still giggling, Riley scrunched her pillow, making it more comfortable before snuggling down on it. “Could you go shopping with us, too, Uncle Jesse? I’m getting new clothes for school.” She yawned, snuggled deeper under the covers. “I’m not afraid to go to school,” she said sleepily. “Honest, Uncle Jesse. Some kids will be scared, but not me.”
“Of course you’re not scared, darlin’.” The tugs on his heart were a pleasant surprise, as was the fierce sense of protectiveness that rose up. Charmed, he pressed a kiss to her forehead. “And I’d love to go shopping with you, Miss Riley. Provided that you promise to go to sleep now.” He slid his finger down her nose. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you sleep makes you beautiful?”
“’kay, Uncle Jesse.” She yawned. “Good night.”
“Night, darlin’.” Jesse kissed her forehead, then rose, and waited in the hall while Hannah tucked her daughter in, gave her a good-night kiss and snapped the light off. Hannah took one long look at her sleeping daughter before shutting the door softly behind her.
When she turned he was right there, blocking her path, his eyes on hers. Suddenly nervous, Hannah wrung her hands together. “You know, Jesse, you’re very good with her.”
He shrugged off the compliment. “She’s adorable. It would be hard not to be.” He touched Hannah’s cheek. She looked beat; her eyes were shadowed and her shoulders looked tight. He wanted to reach out and massage the tension from those beautiful slender shoulders. Instead, he tucked his hands in his pocket, remembering his own cautions to himself. “You’ve done an incredible job with her. She’s an absolute pistol of a kid.”
Pleased at his words, Hannah laughed, realizing they were standing in the quiet, empty hallway, bathed in the very dim light of the hall night-light, which created an unusual sense of intimacy.
She was trying not to be nervous. But she knew how she responded to Jesse, his touch and his mere presence. Right now, she was tired, her nerves taut from the long, emotional day, and her defenses were not where they should be. So why wasn’t she more on guard? she wondered, looking up at him. She didn’t know, and that frightened her far more than anything else. She rarely let her guard down with a man.
“Would you like some coffee?” she asked, trying to move past him. Ignoring his own mental cautions, he blocked her path, sliding his hands to her waist and holding her in place. The look in his eye and the grin on his face had her backing up a bit, until she felt the wall at her back. Her pulse kicked up a notch and she could feel it thumping pleasantly in her ears.
“Actually, darlin’, there is something I want.” His smile was slow, sexy and lethal as his gaze settled on her mouth, and he stepped closer, close enough to her to feel the warmth of his body run the length of her. “But it sure isn’t coffee.”
esse.” Hannah had to swallow. The look on his face, in his eyes, was wreaking havoc on her defenses. And she was far too tired at the moment to truly fight off the feelings swamping her. Her defenses were depleted by sheer nerves and adrenaline, not to mention a full day of work. “I told you, I don’t think this…is…uh…a good idea.”
Surprised by the panic that leaped in her eyes, Jesse decided to back off. The last thing in the world he wanted was to scare her or make her uncomfortable.
One brow rose. “I was just going to ask you what you do for fun.” The twinkle in his eye set her face flaming.
“Oh!” Hannah shook her head, feeling horrifically embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I—”
“Yeah, darlin’, I know.” He grinned at her. “But seems to me you’re about dead on your feet and you don’t need to be pushed or pressed any further today.” He shrugged. “I just wanted to know what you do for fun.”
She laughed, dragging a hand through her hair. He surprised her by reaching up and tugging the pins loose, letting her hair spill free down her back, then combing his fingers through the silky strands. Even though he only touched just her hair, she could feel the quick increase in her pulse from his nearness.
“Fun?” She wasn’t going to be able to think, let alone talk, if he kept touching her. It muddled her mind, she realized. Simply muddled her mind. Something that had never happened to her before.
“Yeah, you do know what fun is, don’t you, darlin’?”
Her mind went blank and she stared at him for a moment. “Jesse, I have to be honest. I can’t remember the last time I did anything just for fun.”
One eyebrow rose, but he wasn’t particularly surprised. Her plate was filled with responsibilities, leaving very little time for recreation. “Well, Hannah, seems to me that’s something we need to correct.”
As long as he was planning on being here for a few days, he’d decided he wanted to spend that time getting to know her—and Riley—a bit better. There was no harm in that, he assured himself. As long as he remembered this wasn’t permanent. This wasn’t serious. This was merely one old friend getting reacquainted with another.
“Correct?” She frowned. “Jesse, I don’t know—”
“Turn around,” he whispered softly.
She blinked in confusion. “Excuse me?”
“Turn around, darlin’.” Taking her by the shoulders, he gently turned her so her back was facing him. “Now, I want you to take a long, deep breath and then let it out very slowly.” He began to knead and massage her tight shoulders as she did so, pressing against the spots of tension until there was a low, soft purring in her throat, a sound that was incredibly arousing to him.
“Oh, Jesse,” she moaned, letting her head fall forward. “If this is your idea of fun, I think I’m going to like it.”
He laughed, and continued kneading, realizing he liked touching her, liked the way her body responded to him, liked the way her voice was husky deep in her throat. In another time and place, that purr would be highly erotic, he thought, shifting his weight to relieve the pressure his own body was feeling.
Sliding his fingers upward, he massaged the base of her neck and into her hairline, using his fingers in a circular motion until he could all but feel the tension seep from her.
“Feel better?” he murmured against her ear. The urge to trace the outline of that ear with his tongue was nearly overwhelming, but he resisted.
Hannah shivered. He was so close, she could feel the whispering warmth of his breath against her neck and her ear and it sent a wicked tremor of longing and need through her.
“Much,” she murmured, allowing herself to relax and lean back against him. She could feel the hard length of him pressed against her back. Her softness nestled comfortably against his male hardness. Her face flamed a bit when she realized that he was just as affected as she was by the touch of their bodies.
“Good.” Deciding he’d better quit before he did something he’d regret, Jesse planted a soft kiss on her neck, felt a quick shiver jolt her, then turned her by the shoulders to face him again. “Now, go take a long, hot bubble bath and get some sleep.” He kissed her forehead, not trusting himself or his body to do any more. “And I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She nodded, still trying to regain control of her traitorous body. An impossibility whenever he seemed to be around, close enough to smell, to touch.
“Jesse, listen.” She laid her hands to his chest. “I know Riley asked you to come over tomorrow, but I’m sure there are a lot of things you have planned. So I don’t want you to feel obligated to her. I’ll just explain tomorrow that you’re busy.”
“Darlin’.” He shook his head. “I told you something before—several times as I recall—but apparently you didn’t believe me.” His gaze met hers as he lifted her chin so she had no choice but to look at him. “I never make promises I can’t keep. And I would never make a promise to a child I wasn’t about to keep. Definitely not my style, darlin’.” He grinned at the relief that passed over her face. “Now, I’ll see you
Riley tomorrow.” He chucked her under the chin. “Go take your bubble bath, then go to bed. I’ll see myself out.”
Watching him walk down the hall and down the stairs, Hannah had to rub her hands over her arms. She wasn’t chilled. No…what she was feeling was far more complicated.
When she heard the back door click shut, she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes, relieved that she wouldn’t have to disappoint Riley by telling her Jesse wasn’t coming over tomorrow.
It was clear that her daughter was totally besotted with Jesse, and the thought of Riley getting hurt had nearly sent her into a panic.
She’d tried so hard to protect her daughter from life’s hurts that it was simply second nature to her now. She reacted to any real or perceived threat to her child, to any situation that could cause her harm.
As she thought about the day, and Jesse, Hannah realized that as much as she wanted to make sure that Jesse did nothing to hurt Riley, she also wanted to make certain he didn’t hurt Tommy or the Ryans, either.
With a sigh, Hannah pushed her hair back and went to run her bath. Too bad she hadn’t quite figured out if she’d done enough to protect
from getting hurt.
He was having trouble sleeping. But Jesse figured that was simply because of the strange bed and the strange environment. Not to mention all that had happened in the past twenty-four hours. He hadn’t had a minute to try to sort things out until now. And even now, he wasn’t certain he could untangle the web of confusion and memories.
Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, Jesse turned and surveyed the room. It was a child’s room, he realized.
Painted in a deep shade of blue, the walls were decorated with wallpaper that boasted gaily colored ships and boats. The windows had matching curtains tied back with a thick white rope resembling a sailor’s knot, allowing a hint of the moon or sun in.
The bed itself was small, a twin, he guessed, considering the fact that at six-four, his feet were now hanging off the end like a pair of wayward snowshoes. The spread was a deep blue as well, and atop the bed, he’d found a small plastic sailboat and a stuffed animal, a one-eared dog with sad, droopy eyes, or rather an eye, and a paw that had obviously been split and mended many times.
In one corner was a bookcase, spilling over with picture books and more plastic models of boats. Schooners, sailboats, even a tanker. A bureau sat against another wall, its top covered with aged photographs. In a corner, a lone basketball sat forgotten and forlorn. Nestled in the small bright blue beanbag chair in another corner was a weathered baseball, clearly well used. It was, he’d decided with a smile, a typical little boy’s room.
When he’d first walked into the room, he’d merely stood in the doorway, staring, hoping to feel or remember something.
It hadn’t happened and he was surprised by the pang of disappointment he’d felt.
Tommy had told him nothing had been changed in his room since the day he’d disappeared. Concerned that Jesse might be uncomfortable, Tommy had offered to put him in one of the rooms in the guest wing, but Jesse had refused, hoping that perhaps being back in his old bedroom might bring back some memories.
Antsy, Jesse got up from the bed and walked to the bureau. Squinting, he bent down to study the framed photographs. There was one of a little boy and Tommy, both laughing. Jesse picked it up.
Tommy was standing on the front lawn of this very house. The little boy he was holding was clearly delighted that his grandfather was playing with him. Dressed in what looked like too-big bathing trunks, at the moment the boy was hanging upside down, his arms swinging free, nearly touching the ground. There was a wide toothless grin on his youthful face.
Sinking down on the bed, Jesse continued to stare at the photo. It had been summer, blisteringly hot that day, he suddenly remembered, and he and his brothers had been out back swimming in the pool. Unlike his brothers, he wasn’t allowed in the pool alone, so when his brothers got tired of swimming, he knew he’d have to get out of the pool, too. Instead, he ran around the front of the house to find his grandfather, knowing Tommy would always come for a swim with him.
A soft knock on his bedroom door startled Jesse out of his memories and he glanced up.
“Come in,” he called quietly. It was well past midnight. He thought everyone had turned in for the night.
The door slowly creaked open and Jared poked his head in. “Jesse, you still awake?”
“Yeah,” he said with a smile, glancing down at the picture again.
“I saw the light on.” Jared shifted nervously. “I had to get up with one of the twins. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. Come on in.”
“You know, Jesse,” Jared began softly, coming into the room and glancing around, “every night for twenty years on my way to bed I walked past your bedroom, hoping against hope it was all a nightmare and I’d find you sound asleep, your covers kicked off, your pillow on the floor. But every night I’d be disappointed. Your room would be dark and empty.” Jared sighed. “But tonight, when I walked past your room, there was a light shining under the door.” Running a hand through his already sleep-rumpled hair, Jared’s eyes burned from the enormous emotions swelling within. “I was almost afraid to open the door tonight. Afraid I’d open it and realize this whole day had been a dream, and the nightmare was what was real.” Shaking his head, Jared blew out a weary breath, then dropped a hand to Jesse’s shoulder. “Jesse, I don’t know how to say this, but…I’m sorry.” Tears blurred Jared’s vision for a moment as he looked at his brother.
“You’re sorry?” Jesse scowled. “For what?”
“I was your older brother, Jesse, I should have protected you, taken care of you, looked out for you.” Jared had to pause to keep his emotions under control. “It should never have happened. For every day of these twenty years I felt responsible for what happened.”
“You shouldn’t have,” Jesse replied. “It wasn’t your fault or your responsibility. What happened, happened.” Jesse shrugged. “I reckon there’s no sense feeling guilty about something you had no control over.” Jesse hadn’t expected this, he realized. Hadn’t expected to feel this enormous emotional connection to the Ryan men.
he thought, still getting used to the idea.
“Yeah, well, try telling that to a kid who’s lost his little brother.” Jared gave Jesse’s shoulder a squeeze. “I just want you to know how sorry I am that this happened to you, to us, to Tommy. And how happy I am that you’re home again.”
“Thanks,” Jesse said quietly, moved too much to speak. For the first time in a long time he hadn’t inwardly flinched at the mention of the word
“And Jesse, I don’t care what happens in the future, I want you to remember something. I’ll always be your brother,” Jared said firmly, setting his jaw in a way that all the Ryan men did. “I don’t know what your future plans are, but whatever they are, wherever they may take you, whatever you may do, I want you to know, no matter what, I’m always here for you. That’s a promise.”
Jesse fingered the photograph in his hand, too touched to speak. He’d never known the luxury of having someone—a brother—in his corner to back him up no matter what. And he realized he liked the thought. Felt comfortable with it, something he never thought he would be.
Grace had been very reclusive, keeping to herself, teaching him to do the same. As a kid, he’d never really questioned it. He grew up a loner, keeping to himself, determined not to want or need anyone else.
Now he understood Grace’s obsessive need for privacy and why they kept to themselves. She must have lived in fear of someone finding out that he wasn’t her real son. Jesse sighed. She made it seem as if it was him and her against the world, and he wasn’t old enough or smart enough to even question her behavior.
He’d never really had any male figures in his life, he realized. Not a father. A brother. Nothing. Kind of like Riley, he thought wistfully, understanding her need for a male influence and her instant attachment to him.
There’d been foremen on the ranch when Jesse was growing up and he got along well enough with them, but there’d been no emotional connection between them, he realized suddenly. And perhaps that was the difference.
“Thanks, Jared,” he said softly, glancing up at his brother and feeling that connection, that emotional connection that ran deep, as if it was an inherent part of him, flow gently through him like a welcome river. “I appreciate it.” He had to clear his throat. “And I appreciate all the hospitality as well.”
“Well, we intend to make you earn your keep,” Jared said with a laugh. “I understand you’ve been running your own spread down in Texas.”
“That’s right, but it sure is nothing compared to this.”
“Well, I can always use a hand if you’ve got a free one.” Jared rubbed his stubbled jaw and stifled a yawn. “Josh is busy most days with his law practice in town. And Jake, well, ranching has never been his idea of a good time. He’d rather be out chasing down a new deal. He handles all new land and business acquisitions for the family.” Jared shrugged. “But that’s their thing. Mine is the land.” Jared walked to the window and glanced out. “It’s always been this way, I guess.”