KATE MORGAN FOLLOWED THE curves of the road while a large knot formed inside her stomach. She imagined birthing labor must feel something like this. Not that she’d ever know. But still, she was convinced her nerves were mimicking the pain. She ignored the bile that nearly climbed up her throat as her pretty, little sports car came to a stop in front of a log home. It was perched on a mound like a king upon his throne, lording over the land that rolled and swayed all around it. The river glinted so brightly, it almost blinded her with white-gold. She could not believe she was doing this. Nor could she believe how she found herself in this situation.
How could her mom keep that kind of secret? She really didn’t know the answer, much less, understand; and that pain, perhaps more than her nerves, made her stomach knot and cramp to the point she couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten a real meal.
Inhaling a deep breath, she kept trying to pep talk herself into opening the car door and stepping out. She was strong enough to handle this. She had to do it. She was not responsible for the situation. Her mother was.
Damn her mother.
Why then, did the very thought of her mother, now dead, nearly cut her in half? It made the knot in her stomach sharpen like a knife before twisting inside her gut and taking her breath away. Oh, Mom, how could you do this to me? But I miss you. So much…
Don’t cry. Not now. Now wasn’t the time for grief, knowing she’d never see her mom again. She’d never learn the answers for why her mom would keep such a secret. Or what she was supposed to do about it.
She had no idea if coming there was right or wrong. Nothing felt right or wrong anymore. She didn’t know if her grief-stricken brain was still even capable of making the proper decision. But here she was…in the middle of freaking nowhere, at a dusty ranch with not a soul around. At least, none that she could see. Lousy, piece of crap location.
So, grabbing the handle on her convertible two-seater, she climbed out. She had long legs. Ridiculously long. Standing damn near six feet tall, she never once slumped her shoulders to lessen her stature. She was proud and sure of every damn inch of herself.
At least, she was until today. Now, the thought of going to a strange house and introducing herself as the long-lost sister to its owner managed to make her usual confidence waver just a smidgeon.
Shit. What could anyone say to that? As far as she could read the situation, Mr. Jack Rydell, her half-brother, wouldn’t know she even existed or consider the possibility. Same way she felt about him. Until two weeks ago.
She shook her head. Not now. She could not enter the psyche of her dead mother in order to figure out why she would have kept such a secret. Even worse, how could her mother abandon her own son? Turning her back on him as if he were an annoying cat or dog or guinea pig she no longer wanted?
Maybe he was a horrible kid and man? Maybe he was a serial killer in the making and she kept him a secret just to protect Kate. Could that be? Glancing around, Kate gave the ranch a passing grade. They weren’t destitute. She sniffed; that didn’t mean anything. There had to be some kind of compelling reason why this Jack Rydell was always kept from her. And why her mother ran from this place, literally never once looking back or returning or even mentioning it.
Perhaps it was the smell? A gust of wind tinged with the earthy scent of horses and manure wafted up her nose. She nearly gagged. She hated farm animals. Along with farms. Ranches. Chickens. Goats. Cows. Horses. Anything country. She grew up in a condo overlooking Elliott Bay in Seattle, and lived in a different condo in Fremont now, but a condo, never the less. Hell, the world needed farms and farmers and all that stuff; and she proudly bought only locally grown, sustainable, organic products from Pike Place Market. But she turned her nose up at living on a farm. No way. Uh-uh. Definitely not for her.
She slipped her sunglasses off and stared up at the ranch house. Nothing. No movement. Damn it. She—
“Excuse me, ma’am, I think you turned off at the wrong road. The resort is the next driveway.”
Ma’am? Kate froze in horror over hearing the expression directed at her, rather than being startled by the unexpected deep voice that interrupted her surveillance. She spun around and cast her gaze right smack on the chest of a man. It was impossible not to stare at the broad chest, as it was bare and gleaming in a sheen of sweat. Her gaze descended instead of rising, and she couldn’t help noticing how low the light blue jeans rode over his lean hips. A large, silver belt buckle was the only distraction from his perfect abdominal wall. The voice, however, didn’t totally match the chest. His voice was quiet, almost soft and so respectful with the ma’am attached to it. Ma’am? She lifted her glaring eyes to inspect the man’s face. He probably had a good half inch on her. Maybe. She could totally eclipse him in heels, or even just a good pair of boots. It was impossible to get much of an impression. The white cowboy hat he wore was pulled down low over his forehead and deliberately shielding his eyes. His jaw was under its shadow, but she didn’t fail to notice the square cut of it. Almost to the point of being boxy. His mouth was flat and his nose hooked slightly to the left as if it had had a bad break at some point. Interesting face, but not perfect. Not even all that handsome.
She mentally bitch-slapped herself for gawking at the man. He was her brother! Gross. God, Mom! How could you not tell me? she kept wondering.
“Are you Jack Rydell?”
An infinitesimal smile tugged at the man’s mouth and he grunted his reply, which she took to mean “as if.” The man lifted a hand to the brim of his hat where the white was grayed, no doubt, by the man’s dirty hands often doing that very move. He tilted the hat back far enough so his eyes could totally meet hers. They were a bright hazel that glowed against the dark tan of his skin. She caught a glimpse of sandy-colored hair. “Sorry, ma’am. I’m not Jack. Mr. Rydell isn’t here right now. You’re not looking for the resort then?”
There it was again. Ma’am. How the hell old did she look to this cow hick? Forty? He had to be riding close to thirty and she was just barely past it. Resort? What resort? What the hell was he talking about?
“Uh… yeah. Sure. Of course. Jack Rydell runs it, right?”
“He and his wife, and all his brothers.”
Brothers? She didn’t know he had other siblings. “Are you one of them?”
His eyes never left hers, and she felt something shift in her stomach. It changed from a dull ache to butterflies. There was no mistaking the connection and electricity between them. Her breathing instantly sounded thicker and raced faster while her hands grew moist in a new kind of anxiety. He was hot. Harsh face or not, the man’s body created an irresistible urge inside her to lick and caress it.