Authors: RG Alexander
Alicia looked down in frustration and the towel on her head unraveled and fell to the floor, her long wet hair covering her face until she swept it back angrily. “Well, neither is that rat trap I found you in.”
“It was all we could afford.”
She noticed the man watching her and flinched. “Pardon my language, Mr. Reyes. I am truly sorry for invading your home like this and bothering you with our problems. I assure you there is no need to call the Sheriff. Let us get dressed and packed and we’ll be out of your way within the hour.”
He tilted his head, studying her. “I don’t think dragging a pregnant woman around town looking for a hotel at ten o’clock at night is the best idea, do you?” He smiled in Jinny’s direction. “We aren’t city folk, and most places are shut down by now anyway. If Jinny is Miguel’s wife, she’s my family. I don’t turn family out on the streets.”
She shook her head. “I appreciate that, sir, but it isn’t—”
“Why don’t we let her get back to sleeping for two, and you dress in something besides that towel?” He interrupted softly, the smile he’d had for Jinny dimming slightly. “I’ll be in my office making a few calls. When you’re ready, I would appreciate you coming down to continue this conversation.”
He wanted more information. It was beyond uncomfortable, and she’d rather just leave and endure her embarrassment in a hotel room far away from here, but since the poor man hadn’t expected to come home to an episode of
and he was related to Jinny’s husband, she knew he deserved answers. She nodded and turned back toward her sister, who really did look like she needed some sleep.
“Alicia what?” His question stopped her and she glanced over her shoulder to meet his dark, penetrating stare. He must have heard Jinny say her name.
“Bell. Alicia Bell.”
She felt his gaze on her even after she’d disappeared from his view. Tracy Reyes was a striking man, and nothing at all what she’d expected.
He wanted to talk to her alone.
She took a steadying breath. She’d faced down enough raging parents and stubborn students. She could handle one angry rancher, no matter how overwhelming his presence was. Jinny, on the other hand… “We need to get you to bed, baby girl.”
Jinny chewed on her lower lip. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about his mother. She’s had it rough until recently and she always taught Miguel to keep his business to himself. He’s a little overprotective of her. Of both of us. I knew you’d be upset if I mentioned it, and I didn’t want to ruin our week.” She smiled. “It’s been perfect, hasn’t it? Like when we were kids.”
She was still a kid. A twenty-one year old, married and eight months pregnant child who didn’t seem to know what she was getting herself into. Alicia forced herself to smile in return. “When we were kids we lived in an apartment the size of a closet and you hated my guts. I know because you told me every day.”
Jinny waited until she was standing beside the bed and turned to hug Alicia, a task made more difficult by her bulging middle. “I was a brat, I know. And I was lying because I love your guts. I always have. Thank you for coming when I called, Al. I missed you. I feel better every day and so does the baby.”
“I love your guts too.”
Her sister lowered herself onto the mattress and frowned. “He must have forgotten. Mr. Reyes, I mean. Miguel swore he told him we were here.”
Alicia snorted. “Old, forgetful Mr. Reyes?”
Jinny’s eyes sparkled. “I did have an entirely different picture of him in my head. That man obviously ate his spinach as a child. He’s definitely related to my Miguel, though. Did you see how handsome he was? That family is blessed in the gene department. My baby is going to be gorgeous.”
“And stubborn,” Alicia added. “There’ll be a few of your genes in there as well. You just wait and see.”
“I’m sorry about this mix up, Al.”
Alicia shook her head. “Look, don’t worry about it now. The baby needs you rested. I’ll take care of it and I’ll see you in the morning. Try to go back to sleep.”
She turned out the light and went across the hall to the bedroom she’d been using. Jinny’s was obviously the master suite. His room. She would have to let Mr. Reyes know before he got another surprise when he tried to go to bed.
She closed the door, dropping her towel and reaching for her underwear. The thin white cotton pajama bottoms dotted with apples lying at the foot of the bed beside them were not going to cut it. Apples. Jinny was always getting her teaching related presents. Her birthday. Christmas. Alicia didn’t have the heart to tell her to stop, even though she had enough apple-scented shampoo to get her through the apocalypse.
She rifled through the drawer and pulled out a long sleeved shirt and a pair of jeans. Showing up in pajamas didn’t make the right kind of statement when you were planning to apologize for squatting. She needed armor to face this dragon in its lair.
Absently staring at her reflection in the mirror, she brushed and braided her damp hair. Dragon wasn’t really the best comparison. Maybe it was the Colorado Mountains or the way he walked, but Tracy Reyes reminded her more of an oversized mountain lion. She thought about the dark waves of his hair and his rich brown eyes…or a panther.
Predatory. Dangerous. Territorial.
Despite Jinny’s blessed genes comment, Alicia had a hard time believing the bumbling Miguel was related to someone who exuded authority the way the man downstairs seemed to. It wasn’t just his size or his height—though he must be at least six foot six and wide as a wall. Tracy Reyes wore his confidence more comfortably than most men wore clothes. His reactions—from enraged and suspicious to kind and solicitous of Jinny—didn’t distract from her awareness of his masculine charms. Or the unnerving affect they had on her as she stood beside him, practically naked.
She puffed her cheeks and blew out a forceful breath. That train of thought led to a town called Trouble, and she’d be smarter to avoid it entirely. Mr. Reyes actually seemed to care about family, unlike Miguel, and she couldn’t repay his compassionate hospitality for Jinny with coherent conversation if she was drooling over the rich toffee goodness of his massive biceps.
She finished her braid and let it hang instead of wrapping it in a bun the way she always did for work. It swayed saucily against her behind as she walked down the stairs again and toward the office she’d already explored days before when they arrived, curious about this family member who had “saved” Miguel.
Alicia’s search for clues during Jinny’s naps hadn’t yielded as much information as admiration. The large, high ceilinged room was filled with an impressive selection of books and warm, masculine furnishings. There were antiques on the wall that shouted cowboy, in case anyone had missed the stable a few yards away from the two-story house and the private road that ended at a cattle ranch. An iron horse bit, an old rusting spur, a faded photograph of the Reyes ranch and its original owners. There was also a long, worn rope hanging from a brass hook.
From his literary collection she could tell he was educated, from his knick-knacks, his computer and wall-length flat screen television she could see that he had a healthy respect for history while still enjoying the comforts of the present.
It was the same in his living room and master bath, as well as the large wrap around deck that had stairs leading down to the most decadent hot tub she’d ever experienced and an infinity edge pool with a breathtaking view of the mountains beyond.
No one with this kind of mountain hideaway—the kind that cost more than she’d make in her lifetime—would trust a man like Miguel with its upkeep. Or welcome strangers without any supervision. Alicia knew it, in the back of her mind she’d known as soon as he’d brought them here, but the relief and awe in Jinny’s expression had made her hold her tongue. Even if it had only been for a few days, her sister deserved to be spoiled. Miguel owed her that much.
Now Alicia just had to explain that to the owner.
Mr. Reyes was speaking on his cell phone in rapid Spanish but he stopped the moment she stepped through the door. She sent him an apologetic expression and started to back out, but he lifted one hand to stop her.
“I will talk to you in the morning, yes? Get some rest.” He disconnected the call without taking his eyes off of her. “Come in, please. Can I get you something to drink?”
She folded her hands in front of her and stood, feeling like she was being called on the carpet by her school’s principal. “No, thank you.”
He walked over to the small bar, pouring himself a glass while he took in her clothing. “You don’t look old enough, anyway. Are you cold?”
She sucked in her cheeks and nodded, not really lying. “It does get chillier here at night than I expected. And I’m old enough. I’m also a lightweight, and I believe you wanted to find out more about why there are strange women in your house instead of how badly off-key I’ll sing when I’m tipsy.”
“I do. How old
you, Goldilocks?” he murmured over his glass. “And whose been sleeping in my bed?”
Her hands tightened, feeling an unexpected wave of heat at his words. “Kind of a personal question and not very original, but I’ll answer it regardless. I’ll be twenty-seven next month. And my younger sister has been sleeping in your bed, because it has its own master bathroom with a strong bench in the shower and a mattress that doesn’t hurt her back.”
He nodded, downing his drink and setting it on the bar. “She’s Miguel’s age, yes? Twenty-one? I suppose she’s right then. Old Mr. Reyes.” He shook his head. “A few hours ago I wasn’t quite forty and still in my prime. Time flies.”
Alicia took a step further into the room. “I wanted to tell you again how sorry I am about this.”
He waved her words away with one large hand. “It’s not you who needs to apologize. But I would like to know about the events that led to this temporary living situation. In detail, if you would, Ms. Bell.”
She ignored the small shiver that rippled through her at his commanding tone. She had no problem remembering the details. In fact it was just the distraction she needed. “I arrived in town last week and discovered my pregnant sister living in one of those week to week furnished apartments, the kind that should have been torn down in the seventies. She looked a little worse than she does now because she’s had a rough pregnancy—her morning sickness apparently just ended a few weeks ago—and she only saw her husband for lunch and on his days off and I…frankly I was mad as hell. Looking back, I think Miguel convinced us we could stay here until he found them a new apartment because I scared him and he knew I wanted to take her away.”
He frowned. “I’m not surprised at your anger. He has family here, family who would have made sure your sister had all of her needs met. If he had told me he was married with a child I would have made the appropriate living arrangements. We do have couples on the ranch and housing specifically for families. I’ll make sure he understands my feelings on the matter tomorrow. Trust me, Ms. Bell, things are going to change.”
“I appreciate the thought.” She didn’t realize she was shaking her head doubtfully until he commented.
“But? Do you doubt my intentions?”
“Not at all. Honestly? I have no desire to insult a member of your family, but I’m thinking I’ve seen boys like Miguel a thousand times in my classroom. I’m thinking talking won’t change anything and the best thing I can do to protect
family, my sister, is find a way to convince her to drive back to New York with me.”
His chuckle was sinful and rich as he walked toward her, approval in his gaze. “It’s hard to argue with that logic. Hard not to admire your determination to protect young Jinny.” He stopped a few feet in front of her, forcing her to look up again. “Are you her only family?”
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “How could you possibly know that?”
He shrugged one shoulder in a lazy motion that belied his intent expression. “For a scary giant, I’m remarkably observant. You protect her like a mother would. As if you’re the only one who can. And she argues and, it seems, hides things from you like a rebellious daughter.”
That was a little too observant for her comfort, but she couldn’t deny the truth. “We lost our parents when I was seventeen.”
“And you took care of her by yourself? Went to school and worked to feed and clothe your sister without anyone to help you?”
Had he moved closer? She could feel the heat coming off him in waves, but she didn’t back away. She didn’t want him to see how his insight threw her off balance. “We made do. And there was a neighbor who watched Jinny when I had to work.”
“What about Alicia Bell?” He said her name as if it were poetry. “Did she find time to do anything other than work and study and raise her sister? To make mistakes with the wrong boy? Did she sneak out of the house to meet him, knowing she shouldn’t?”
Her shoulders tensed. What did that have to do with anything? “
did most of her sneaking out when she was sixteen. Then she grew up, became a teacher and made sure her sister graduated high school at the top of her class.”
Alicia hadn’t had time for relationship mistakes. A few safe, consensual one night stands through the years. A few sexless dates with friends of friends. One casual boyfriend who lasted nearly a year before they both decided they were better off as friends.
Not the most impressive dating resume for single city girl, but with her body type and freckles, she was more likely to be asked to the junior prom by one of her students than approached by a man in a bar.
She’d never experienced the kind of wicked passion she read about by the light of her e-reader before bed. The kind she’d barely scratched the surface of when she was rebelling before her parent’s accident. Looking back, none of her intimate relationships had ever given her as much pleasure as she gave herself.
It was a pathetic thought, but it was the truth.
Even worse was the feeling that Mr. Observant knew it. Knew how lacking her sex life was, how obviously lacking her parenting skills had been and recognized her for the future spinster schoolmarm she was already becoming.