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Authors: Sheri WhiteFeather

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BOOK: Once a Rebel
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“Does it have to be a long-term commitment?”

“I like to hope it does. My last two relationships lasted for quite a few years. They didn't work out, but at least I tried.”

He lifted his water and took a swig. “Mine never last. But I'm not saying that I won't make a long-term commitment. That it won't ever happen.”

She nodded, recalling that he wanted a wife and children someday. “Maybe you're not as detached as you seem.”

“Detached? I'm falling at your feet, woman.”

“Because you want sex.”

“I settled for friendship, didn't I?”

“Yes, you did.” And he was turning into a darn good friend, someone she was able to confide in.

“Do you want to talk about Cathy?” he asked. “Dissect her for a while?”

“And take the pressure off of us? Sure.” She took a bite of the enchilada she'd barely touched, grateful her appetite was coming back. Cathy was the reason she'd accepted his dinner invitation. Amber, too. But she'd already grilled him about his ex. “Tell me what you know about her.”

“She's fourteen, I think. And she's originally from California.”

She scooted closer to the table. “Northern California?”

“Southern. The L.A. area. I'm not sure why her family moved to Texas, but they've lived here for about six months. Her dad is a gardener on the ranch. He manages the greenhouse.”

“What's he like? What's your assessment of him?”

Ethan continued eating. “He seems like a good guy. Hardworking, easygoing. He's older, though. About Ryan's age.”

“And Cathy's mother?”

“She's in her late thirties. A homemaker. She babysits for some of the ranch hands' kids. That's why she used to watch Amber's son when we went out. She came highly recommended.”

“Does Cathy have any brothers or sisters?”

“Not yet. But her mom's pregnant, so she will.” A masculine smile crawled across his lips. “I guess the old guy is pretty potent.”

Susan rolled her eyes. “Spoken like a true man.”

The smile remained. “What can I say? He handed out cigars when he found out. He seemed proud.”

And Cathy appeared to have a nice family, but appearances could be deceiving. “Why do you think she's so rebellious? Does she seem jealous that her parents are having another baby? Or embarrassed by it?”

“I don't know. But I think she prefers to interact with animals more than people. She pretends that Chocolate annoys her, but I've seen her slipping him treats. And she hangs around the barn before school, bringing carrots to the horses.”

“Maybe that's the way I can reach her.” She snared his gaze. “Maybe we both can.”

“That kid isn't interested in being reached. She's a loner.”

“Who prefers animals to people. Like you did when you were young.”

“Fine.” He softened his voice. “Next time you see her, you can ask her if she wants to go on a ride along.”

“With you?” Her heart made a grateful little leap toward his. “On your rounds?”

“Yes, but you have to come, too.”

She agreed, and they looked at each other from across the table. Friends, she thought. And saviors of lost teenage souls.

If not Cathy's, then at least their own.

Five

E
than entered the barn and walked the first row of stalls. Dinner had ended on a tender note last night, and he'd gone to bed thinking about Susan, anxious to see her again.

So here he was, the following morning, scouting the ranch for her, hoping his instincts paid off.

And they did. Just a few minutes later when he saw her standing at Serene's stall.

Rather than make his presence known, he stopped and watched her. She fed the mare an apple wedge, and the horse gobbled it up. After Serene nudged her for another bite, Susan laughed and obliged the determined Appaloosa.

“Are you spoiling my horse?” he finally said.

Susan spun around, and he smiled at her. For a moment, time seemed to stand still. She smiled at him, too. Serene chomped noisily in the background, but it didn't matter. A connection had already been made.

“Did you bring Chocolate with you?” he asked, wondering why the dog wasn't driving them nuts.

“He's still asleep in my bed.”

Lucky mutt, Ethan thought. He suspected her bed was warm and silky, overflowing with pillows and scented with a hint of lemon.

“Are you working today?” she asked.

“Not until later.” He kept his gaze riveted to hers. “I came here looking for you because I knew you'd come here looking for Cathy. Did you find her?”

“No. I checked behind the outbuildings first, but there was no sign of her.”

“I guess she picked a new spot to sneak a smoke.”

“So it seems.” She broke eye contact, looking around. “Does she come to the barn every morning or is this a long shot?”

“I don't know. I'm not here every day. But I've seen her quite a few times, dressed for school, with her backpack and all that.”

“Making friends with the horses?”

“Yep.” He moved closer. “Like you just did with Serene.”

She moved closer, too, meeting him halfway. “I couldn't come here empty-handed.”

“Me, neither. I have a thermos of coffee in the truck and some store-bought muffins. Do you want to join me for breakfast?”

She tucked her hair behind her ears, and he noticed a set of diamonds studs. They looked good on her, even with a simple button-down blouse and cowgirl-cut jeans.

“I'd love to have breakfast with you,” she said. “But do you realize that all we ever do when we're together is eat?”

“Really? Hmm.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Maybe we just need to keep our mouths busy.”

She sucked her bottom lip between her teeth, and he knew he'd struck a chord. She wanted to kiss him as badly as he wanted to kiss her. But they kept eating instead.

“What kind of muffins?” she asked.

“Blueberry,” he told her. Now she was moistening her lips, making a blast of arousal swirl in his gut.

She untucked her hair, letting it fall against her cheeks once again. “Did you add cream and sugar to the coffee?”

“No, but I brought those little packets.” He made a goofy face, trying to temper the heat that was headed straight for his groin. “I always nab them from fast-food joints.”

She laughed a little. “I guess it's a bachelor thing.”

“Or a cheap thing. I should probably break down and buy them.” He removed his hands from his pockets, concerned about calling attention to his zipper. “Are you ready to sample my coffee?”

“Is it strong?”

“Always.”

“Then I'm ready.”

They walked outside together. Ethan barely noticed the scent of hay and horses. For him, it was as familiar as his own sweat at the end of a hard-earned day.

He got the thermos and muffins out of his truck, setting up their breakfast on the bed of his vehicle.

Seated next to Susan, he handed her a disposable cup, then poured her coffee and watched it steam in the morning air.

She doctored her drink, making it sweet and light, stirring it with a plastic spoon he'd provided. He drank his black, using the thermos cup.

She gave him an odd look. “Why do you take these packets if you don't use them?”

“For company. For people who come to visit. Or for times like this.”

She removed a muffin from the package and picked at the blueberries, nibbling like a bird. “I'm a morning person. I like to get up early and embrace the day.”

“Me, too.” As crumbs dropped onto her lap, Ethan realized that he'd forgotten about napkins. But it didn't matter. She seemed comfortable by his side, making him curious to know more about her. “Tell me about your job. Do you share your office with other psychologists?”

She answered easily, quickly. “I don't have a private practice. I run a national youth crisis hotline. We guide troubled teens, getting them the help they need.”

Silent, he rubbed his hand across his jaw. It made perfect sense. A national hotline fit her: the girl she used to be and the woman she'd become. Yet he'd envisioned her in a high-rise building, treating rich kids whose parents were footing the bill.

“It's difficult to take time off,” she said. “But my assistant is filling in for me. There's always so much to
do, almost more than any of us—the employees and the volunteers—can handle.”

“What sort of issues do you cover?”

“Everything. Emotional, spiritual and social problems. Anything a teenager might face today. Sometimes it's easier for them to call a hotline and talk to a stranger than approach someone they know. And the hotline is available twenty-four hours a day.” The noise from ranch hands repairing a fence made hollow sounds, echoing in the distance. “I need to make a difference, to devote my life to something that offers kids a choice.”

He sipped his coffee, letting the hot beverage settle in his bones. “What was wrong when you were young, Susan? What happened between you and your dad?”

She looked up, her eyes suddenly more hazel than green, something that happened when she turned sad. He used to study her, storing all of her gestures, habits and physical traits in his mind. The way she did with him, he supposed. They were both guilty of dissecting each other.

“My dad was a respected banker in our community,” she said. “But he was also a functioning alcoholic.”

“And abusive?”

She nodded. “Nothing any of us ever did was right. Vincent tried to protect us, but it didn't help.”

Ethan waited for her to continue. He knew Vincent was her oldest brother, a man who'd become a security specialist.

“I was primed for a rebellion,” she said. “To prove that I could fight fire with fire.”

And destroy her own innocence, he thought. A
drinker, a smoker, a girl who'd tried to make boys like her by giving them sexual favors, by laying her young soul on the line.

She set her half-eaten muffin on top of the wrapper. “My dad and I had a horrible fight one night. I came home late, drunk as a lipstick-smeared skunk, and he blew a gasket. The ironic part is that he was wasted, too. Bleary-eyed from all those proper martinis. But he didn't see it that way. He always made excuses for himself.” She reached for her coffee and held the cup against her chest. “He kicked me out, told me to go live on the streets. But my mother, passive as she was, reminded him that I was too young to be on my own. So Dad decided to pawn me off on the first relative who was willing to take me.”

“Ryan,” Ethan said, tempted to touch her, to absorb the texture of her skin.

She nodded, her breathing soft and gentle, as light as the breeze that whispered in the wind. “He was my salvation. I spent almost a year defying him, going around this ranch, acting tough and getting into trouble. But toward the end, I realized how much he and his family cared about me.” She smiled at the memory. “Ryan treated me like one of his own children. The way a child should be treated. He held me accountable when I broke the rules, but he praised me when I did something right. He was proud of my academic achievements. He said kind things to me. He encouraged me to apply to prestigious colleges, to show the world what I was made of.”

Inner strength, Ethan thought. And a reckless nature she'd learned to tame. “How is the rest of your family
doing?” he asked, wondering about her siblings. He'd never met them, not officially, but he knew who they were.

“Vincent got married a couple months ago,” she said. “He's on an extended honeymoon, but it's mainly to keep his wife out of danger. She witnessed a murder and the killer is still at large.” She paused, frowned. “It's Jason Jamison, the man who threatened Ryan. You know about him, don't you?”

“Yes. Ryan told me about him. He's the reason security is so tight around here.” And now he understood why Ryan hadn't hired Vincent's company to do the job. Vincent was out of town.

Susan resumed their conversation. “My brother Daniel is doing fine. He's married, too. His wife's name is Alisha. They ran off to Vegas last weekend without telling anyone.” She managed a lighthearted laugh. “I never thought that would happen to him. Falling in love so deeply.”

Ethan didn't know if he should envy or pity the guy. “And your sister?”

“Kyra?” She made a thoughtful expression. “She's just Kyra. Tall, stylish and distrustful of men.”

“So are you,” he said.

“Distrustful of men?”

“No.” He shot her a boyish grin. “Stylish. But she's got you beat in the tall department.”

“Don't I know it?” She jammed her elbow into him. “But don't act superior. You like petite blondes.”

“That I do.” He balanced his coffee as it sloshed in his cup. He'd patterned every blonde he'd ever dated after her. Not consciously, but he'd done it.

A Freudian crime, he mused, recalling how she'd teased him about it last night.

When silence lapsed between them, they sat quietly, watching the ranch hands do their jobs. Ethan finished his muffin, but Susan still picked at hers like a sparrow.

“I never made peace with him,” she said. “But at the time I didn't want to. So, in the end, there was nothing. No closure.”

He knew she was taking about her father. “I heard your parents died in a single-vehicle accident.”

“Seven years ago. Dad was driving.” She turned to look at him. “We never knew if he'd been drinking. We never found out.”

He put his arm around her, holding her close, giving her the comfort she needed. She closed her eyes and rested her head on his shoulder.

He closed his eyes, too. He knew what it was like to cut someone out of his heart, to not make peace with that person. But he wasn't going to offer information about his mom and what she'd done to his dad, a man who was kind and loyal, unlike the bastard who'd sired Susan.

Some things, Ethan thought, were better left unsaid.

 

After spending the morning with Ethan, after being wrapped in his arms, Susan entered the house and stood in the foyer, feeling warm and protected. But the feeling didn't last long.

Deep, serious voices caught her attention, bringing her back to reality. Ryan and another man were discussing Jason Jamison. She couldn't see them, but she could hear them, just a heartbeat away, in the great
room. Was Lily there, too, sitting quietly, anxiety churning inside her?

As Susan moved toward the voices, her boots sounded on the tiled floor, signaling her presence. Everyone turned to look at her. Ryan, Lily and the other man.

Was he the head of the security team?

He stood next to Ryan, and she realized that whoever he was, he was preparing to leave. That their discussion was over, at least for now.

He was tall, with short dark hair and a strong, solid build. His clothes were as dark as his hair and the expression on his face.

“Susan,” Ryan spoke first. “This is Special Agent Jamison. Emmett,” he added, using the other man's first name, letting her know she didn't have to stand on formality.

So this was Jason's brother? The FBI agent who'd vowed to track him down?

She extended her hand. “Nice to meet you. I'm Ryan and Lily's cousin. I don't live here. I'm visiting from California.”

“I know who you are. I'm aware of everyone on the ranch.”

Of course, she thought. That was part of his job.

Emmett's manner, she noticed, was professional yet brusque. Even his handshake was quick and to the point. But that didn't mean he wasn't aware of his surroundings. His eyes, as green as her own, cut through her like a blade. When she took a step back, his gaze didn't leave her face, not until he turned away to address Ryan.

“I'll be in touch,” he told him.

“I appreciate it.” Ryan looked old and tired next to
the sharp-eyed man. But he'd probably had a trying day, fighting the tumor that swelled his brain. His symptoms were getting worse.

Emmett nodded at Lily, saying goodbye to her, a salutation the woman returned. Behind her, the doors that led to the inner courtyard were open, creating a picturesque backdrop, flowers blooming at every turn. The setting didn't fit Emmett Jamison. It seemed too bright, too cheerful for his hard-edged demeanor.

The special agent departed, not through the inner courtyard, but through the front door, where another courtyard and a wrought-iron gate prevailed. Ryan disappeared with him, leaving the women by themselves.

“Emmett isn't what I expected,” Susan said.

“Me, neither.” Lily paused, her eyebrows knit. “But he must be a good man. Ryan seems to like him, to sense his honor.”

Susan nodded. Her cousin was a strong judge of character, at least most of the time. He'd trusted Jason in the beginning. “Any word on Jason's whereabouts?”

“Not yet, but Emmett is doing what he can to find him.”

“I'm sure he is.” But in spite of Ryan's confidence in the FBI agent, Susan could tell that Lily was still fighting her fears. Emmett was only human. As were the members of the security team patrolling the ranch. Jason had foiled police and prison guards, making him a dangerously clever man. A criminal who was giving Lily chills.

BOOK: Once a Rebel
11.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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