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Authors: Sheri WhiteFeather

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BOOK: Once a Rebel
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“Lily's making soup,” she said, trying to sound more cheerful than she felt.

“What kind?”

“Apache corn. She's going to bring you some when it's done.”

“That sounds good.” He released her hand. “What did you do today?”

“I went for a walk. Down by the barn.” She studied the fireplace, the rugged structure, the natural beauty of each carefully placed stone. “I ran into Ethan.”

“Really?” Ryan perked up. “How'd it go?”

“Fine. We only talked for a few minutes.” She glanced at her cousin and saw him scrutinizing her beneath his dark brows. Anxious, she fidgeted, then caught herself, folding her hands on her lap. “I used to have a crush on him.”

“I know you did, pumpkin. I think everyone knew.”

Embarrassed, she laughed a little, picturing herself as she was, a teenager in tight clothes and too much mascara. “I wasn't very subtle about it.”

“It's hard to hide those kinds of feelings.” He was still watching her, looking at her with a knowing expression. “Old crushes run deep.” He paused, then said, “Lily was the love of my life when I was young. And look what happened to us.”

She shook her head. “It's not like that between Ethan and me. I hardly know him.”

“The heart doesn't forget.”

She leaned forward, tempted to touch Ryan's cheek. She knew he'd loved his first wife. She'd been his childhood friend, the woman who bore his children. But Lily was the fire in his soul. “You're just an old romantic.”

“And you're a young woman who needs a good man.”

“I have my career.”

“And a big, empty condo in California. That's not enough, Susan.”

“I'm not ready to fall in love.” And especially not with Ethan, she decided. She didn't need the complication. Not now. Not while she was in Texas. “I spent enough time mooning over him.”

“Like I used to do over Lily?”

She leaned back against the sofa, doing her damnedest not to lose the fight. Apparently Ryan was determined to drive his point home, to compare his life to hers. “I never pegged you for a matchmaker.”

“Are you kidding? Me? The old romantic?” He chuckled under his breath. “It's right up my alley.”

She forced a smile, humoring him. And humoring herself, as well.

Because deep down, she wanted to see Ethan again, to summon the courage to stop by the hunting cabin. But she knew she wouldn't.

Susan wasn't about to chase him.

Not ever again.

Two

E
than parked his truck and entered the outer courtyard of the main house, where native plants and ornamental grasses flourished. He took the stone walkway, wondering if he was doing the right thing. Dusk had long since fallen and Susan hadn't showed up at his place. For some self-absorbed reason, he'd expected her to visit him, to take advantage of his invitation. Seventeen years ago, she would've jumped at the chance.

But apparently times had changed.

He blew out a rough breath and inhaled the night-blooming flowers that flanked his path. Was it too late to call on her?

He adjusted his hat, lowering it on his head. Susan never failed to make his blood warm, even when they
were kids. He had no business wanting her. Not then and not now.

But he couldn't help it.

When they were teenagers, he'd heard all sorts of stories about her. He had no idea if the rumors were true. According to gossip, she'd slept with a slew of boys in Red Rock. She'd supposedly devirginized a few of them, too.

Not that his fantasies hadn't run in that direction. She'd been the object of every wet dream he could remember. But he'd had other dreams about her, too. He'd wanted to protect her, to heal her the way he'd learned to minister to the animals on the ranch. But Susan hadn't been a wounded filly or an ailing calf. She'd been wild and independent, as raw as the confusion she'd caused.

The confusion she was still causing.

Ethan wanted to give in to temptation. He wanted to unlock the mystery of the girl he'd refrained from touching, the girl who'd bloomed into a sophisticated woman.

With anxiety churning in his gut, he mounted the front steps. Why hadn't she stopped by the hunting cabin to see him? Had she deliberately left him panting after her? Or was he reading too much into it?

Either way, he was trapped, locked in good and tight.

The way she used to flirt with him. The nights he'd spent thinking about her. Every last memory was magnified in his mind, right down to the day she'd gone off to college.

The day she'd disappeared from his life.

Ethan cleared his thoughts, then knocked on the door, expecting Lily to answer his summons. But when Susan
appeared, wearing a flowing robe draped over a pair of silky pajamas, he wished he'd had the sense to forget about her.

She presented a soft, sultry image, with the top button on her pajamas straining above her breasts. The robe gaped in that spot, drawing his gaze to the slight swell of cleavage.

“Ethan?”

He pulled his gaze to her face. Her honey-blond hair fell in a loose, nighttime style, lightly combed and framing her chin. He wondered if it smelled like lemons. Her hair had been longer when they were younger, and the citrus scent used to drive him half-mad. Not that she would know the difference. He'd never mentioned it.

“I wasn't expecting you.” She tightened the belt on her robe, but her modest effort didn't change a thing.

He could still see the straining button.

He cleared his throat. “I hope it's not too late for a visit.”

“No. Of course not.” She recovered her composure. “Ryan and Lily already went to bed, but I was just getting ready to fix a cup of tea. Would you like some?”

He rarely drank tea, but he wasn't about to turn her down, not after showing up at her door. “Sure. That'd be nice.”

Ethan followed her into the kitchen, where she filled a stainless steel kettle, the kind that whistled, and set it on the stove. He remembered that his mom used to boil water in one of those. As a child, he used to wonder what made it cry out.

When Susan turned to look at him, he caught himself frowning.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

He wiped the surly expression off his face. Thinking about his mom always put him in a bad mood. “I'm fine.”

She invited him to sit in the dining room, where she was still close enough to hear the whistle blow.

He removed his denim jacket and placed it over the back of a chair. But he didn't expect her to remove her robe. She still had it cinched. As a teenager, she used to show a lot of flesh, wearing skimpy outfits designed to set his gender on fire. Yet somehow, the misbehaving button on her pajama top seemed even sexier than all those cropped T-shirts and short-shorts ever did.

“Is there something special you wanted to talk to me about?” she asked.

Suddenly Ethan had the urge to bolt. He didn't know what to say, how to explain his compulsion to see her at this hour, so he faked it the best he could. “We didn't have much time to visit earlier, to catch up on old times.”

She smoothed the Aztec-printed placemat in front of her. “You had an appointment.”

“I'm not in a hurry now.” Which was a lie, of course. He was anxious as hell, impatient to cross the finish line, to have a zipper-blasting affair with her. He'd always been sexually obsessed with her, but things had been complicated when they were young.

She tilted her head. “So that's your only agenda? To catch up on old times?”

Guilt clawed at his chest. She'd come home to be with Ryan, to help him face the prospect of death. Tear
ing up the sheets with a man from her past didn't factor into the equation. “You think I have ulterior motives? Me? The guy who never even kissed you?”

Susan appeared to be pondering his words. And worse yet, she was assessing his body language. He could tell by the way she looked at him. He wondered if she could see through him, if that was part of her job, something psychologists of her caliber were able to do.

“You didn't come here tonight to see how much I've changed? To decide if I'm still a bad girl deep inside?”

He cursed beneath his breath, wishing he'd stayed away from her. “I came here because—”

The whistle on the kettle blew, nearly jarring him out of his skin. She hopped up, bumping the table, rattling his emotions.

“I'll go get our tea,” she said.

He waited in the dining room. Once the kettle stopped making noise, the house fell into a slumberous hush. Nothing stirred but his heart.

Trying to relax, Ethan looked around. The Spanish-style decor appealed to him. He liked the heavy woods and rich textures.

Susan returned with a clay-colored tray that held two stoneware cups, a small variety of tea bags, a bowl of sugar and a cow-shaped creamer.

He chose an herbal blend that came in an orange packet, but he didn't add anything to it. Susan picked the same flavor, doctoring hers with sugar and milk.

The drink was warm against his throat, more soothing than he expected. And he was glad she'd provided sturdy cups. His hands were too big for delicate china.

“Go ahead and finish what you were going to say,” she told him. “Tell me why you're really here.”

He opted for honesty. But not
complete
honesty. He was keeping his hunger to himself. “It bugged me that you didn't stop by today.”

“I considered it. But I didn't want you to think I was starting that old cycle again. Throwing myself at you.”

Her admission gave him a boost of confidence. “Maybe we could do something together. Go on a date or something.”

“A date?” She sounded intrigued yet wary, still unsure of his intentions.

He backed off a bit, lifting one shoulder in an easy shrug. “Just something casual.”

She sucked in a breath. “Like what?”

“We could go for a ride tomorrow afternoon. It's supposed to warm up.” And he was willing to rearrange his schedule to spend some time with her. “Around noon?”

“Do you have a horse that would suit me? I never was a skilled rider.”

“I've got a gentle old mare. I inherited her from one of my clients. I got roped into some dogs, too. And there's a wild squirrel that pesters me for attention.”

She gave him a sweet smile. “You were always good with strays. With the wild ones, too.”

Grateful, he returned her smile. He'd always considered her a stray. And she'd been as wild as they come. “We can have a picnic. I can pick up some deli food.”

“Why don't you let me pack our lunch? It will be my contribution to the date.”

“Thanks. That sounds great. I'll trailer the horses to
the hunting cabin ahead of time. You can meet me there instead of the barn.”

She agreed, and he finished his tea and left before it got too late. But as they said goodbye, they parted without any physical contact. No hug, no kiss on the cheek.

Nothing that indicated what tomorrow would bring.

 

The following morning a puffy blue sky presided over leafy plants and flowering perennials. Susan shared the inner courtyard with Lily and Ryan, who sat across from her at a glass-topped table. This was Susan's favorite place on the Double Crown. An old-fashioned swing was positioned beneath a vine-draped arbor, and a fountain bubbled in the morning air.

Breakfast consisted of a Spanish omelet, buttered toast, orange juice and coffee. Ryan added more salsa to his omelet, and Susan was glad to see him up and about, enjoying quality time with his wife.

“You look pretty this morning,” Lily said to Susan.

“Thank you.” Susan was dressed in a red T-shirt and Wrangler jeans. Her boots, a sorrel shade of brown, sported a heart design on the toes. She'd fussed over her appearance, taking extra care with her hair and makeup. She'd tried to create a natural look, something that suited her outdoor date with Ethan.

Ryan squinted at Susan, the lines around his eyes crinkling his tanned skin. “You don't seem very hungry.”

She glanced up from her plate. “I usually eat a light breakfast. Besides, I'm going on a picnic with Ethan, and I'm trying to save room.”

The older man smiled. “Well, that didn't take long,
did it? You've only been here for one day and you two made plans already.”

“Don't tease me. I'm already nervous.” She checked her watch. “I've been up since the crack of dawn.” And now she still had two hours to go. But she'd already fried a batch of chicken and filled a plastic container with homemade potato salad.

Ryan's smile shifted to his wife. “We decided to sleep in. To cozy up a bit.”

A girlish blush stained Lily's cheeks, and Susan wondered what it would feel like to have a husband, to turn off the alarm clock and snuggle in a pair of strong arms, to know he would always be there.

No, she thought, her emotions turning sad. He wouldn't
always
be there. If marriage didn't end in divorce, then it ended in death.

There was no pain-free escape.

“Tell me about Jason Jamison,” she said, her mind drifting to the criminal who'd been haunting her family.

Ryan set down his fork. “He's a madman. A disgruntled relative.”

“He's one of us?”

“In a roundabout way. As you know, my father, Kingston, was adopted by the Fortune family. And a man named Travis Jamison was his biological father.”

“And Jason is a descendent of Travis?”

Ryan nodded, but Lily didn't move. She sat quietly, listening to Susan and her husband discuss the Fortune legacy.

“Did Travis know about Kingston?” Susan asked. “Did he know he had a son?”

“No. But once Jason discovered that he was a long-lost relative of my father, he swooped down on us like the vulture he is.”

Lily finally spoke. “Jason is a killer. A heartless murderer.”

A chill rattled Susan's spine, like ice chips scraping against each and every vertebra. She already knew that Jason was a killer, but hearing Lily say it, listening to the anxiety in her voice, brought the reality that much closer to home.

“Did Vincent tell you that Natalie witnessed one of the murders?” Lily asked.

Susan nodded. Vincent was her oldest brother and he'd filled her in about what Natalie, his new bride, had seen. “Jason strangled his own lover. A woman he was passing off as his wife.”

“That's right,” Lily said. “And before that, Jason shot his own brother.”

Susan couldn't imagine someone killing his or her sibling. But according to the Bible, Cain had slain Abel. It wasn't something new.

“Jason has another brother,” Ryan put in. “And this one's an FBI agent. He's going to contact me when he gets into town. He's put other killers behind bars, and he's not going to rest until he catches Jason.”

“What's his name?” Susan asked, curious about the man Ryan was putting his faith in.

“Emmett,” he told her. “Emmett Jamison.”

“Jason already escaped from prison,” Lily told Susan. “It happened while he was being transferred to a maximum-security facility.” She paused, took a breath.
“We're grateful that Special Agent Jamison is on his tail. We need all the help we can get.”

Ryan took his wife's hand. “It will be okay, honey. I promise, it will.”

“I know. But I couldn't bear it if he hurt someone in our family.” She met Susan's gaze across the table. “Just because we have security on the ranch doesn't mean that you shouldn't be careful. Or take their presence for granted.”

Ryan interjected. “Of course she'll be careful. We all will. But we can't live in fear. We can't let Jason destroy our lives.” He brought Lily's hand to his lips and brushed a kiss across her knuckles. “We deserve some happiness. Some peace and quiet.”

Susan didn't say anything. She let Ryan give his wife the comfort she needed. The support only a husband, the man who loved her, could provide.

 

At noon, Susan arrived at the hunting cabin. She parked the SUV she'd borrowed from Ryan behind Ethan's truck and trailer and noticed the horses that were tied to a hitching post on the side of the property.

The building itself, a rustic log structure, sat on a piece of land that blended into the horizon, stretching as far as the eye could see. In the front yard a scatter of trees provided shady ambience, and a rough-hewn porch offered two sturdy, old barrel chairs, where a trio of dogs enjoyed the afternoon sun.

BOOK: Once a Rebel
6.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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