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Dust plumes scattered beneath Caleb Terrell's loafers as he approached the front steps of his former home, looking for the brother who'd despised him for ten long years. A copy of his late father's will was snapped into his Bulgari briefcase, and a million, disturbing questions swirled inside his brain. The Terrell Cattle Company hadn't changed much. The two-story brick house had been meticulously maintained, while the crisp, northern-Colorado mountain air still held the familiar tang of wheatgrass and ponderosa pine.
The soles of his shoes met the smooth wood of the wide, front porch, and for a fleeting moment he wished he'd stopped in Lyndon and changed into blue jeans and boots. But he banished the impulse. He was a businessman now, not a cowboy. And the last thing he wanted to do was feel at home.
His brother, Reed, wouldn't be remotely happy to see him, but outrageous times called for outrageous measures. Reed would have to deal with it.
Caleb briefly toyed with the idea of bursting in unannounced. He owned the place, after all, and Reed had been dodging his calls for over a week. To be fair, Caleb hadn't tried to contact his fraternal twin brother in ten years. Then again, in all that time, Reed hadn't tried to contact Caleb, either.
But now, their father was dead. Caleb wouldn't have set foot on the Terrell ranch in any other circumstance. He'd probably have been shot if he'd tried. Which made the contents of the will that much more baffling.
He gave three short, sharp knocks.
In the moments of silence that followed, he glanced around the ranch yard, refreshing his memory and bracing himself for the conversation to come.
The main barn had been recently painted a dark green. The square horse corrals were still meticulously maintained, their straight rails gleaming white in the afternoon sunshine. He knew every angle was precisely ninety degrees, and the posts were exactly six feet apart, rail centers at twenty-four-inch intervals.
Beyond the yard, black angus cattle dotted the summer green, hillside meadows between groves of aspen and pine. And the snowy peaks of the Rockies rose up to the misty sky. Caleb blinked against the blinding sun, refocusing closer in.
Half a dozen pickup trucks were backed up in formation in front of the equipment sheds. A freshly washed combine, cultivator and hay truck sat on the far side of the barn, and a few dozen chickens were pecking the ground around the tires. In one of the pens, a black horse whinnied and bucked, tossing its glossy mane as it ran the length of the enclosure before stopping short at the fence, nostrils flaring in annoyance.
Caleb didn't recognize the animal. No surprise there. Though there had been a time when he'd been able to name every one of the fifty plus horses at Terrell. He inhaled once more, this time catching the sharp scent of manure. His spine stiffened with a latent memory of his father's quick temper. Yeah, most things had stayed the same around here, and he didn't care to revisit any of them.
As soon as he straightened out the mess with the inheritance, he'd climb back into his rented Escalade, head for the Lyndon airport and take the Active Equipment jet back to his corporate headquarters in Chicago. Sayonara Colorado.
He turned back to the door and knocked again.
This time, there was a sound on the other side. But it was a light, quick step crossing the living-room floorso, not his brother, Reed.
The door swung full open, and Caleb came face-to-face with a beautiful, brunette woman. She was maybe five feet five, dressed in a cowl-necked, navy T-shirt with four buttons leaving an open V-neck. Her hair was long and glossy, her lips a dark coral pink, skin smooth, brows gently arched and her moss-green eyes clear and assessing.
She looked vaguely familiar. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking. Even in faded blue jeans and scuffed brown boots, she definitely looked like someone Caleb would like to know. His instantaneous attraction was quickly tempered by the thought that she might belong to his brothera girlfriend, maybe even a wife.
His glance dipped reflexively to her left hand. No ring. But that didn't mean she wasn't Reed's.
"Are you selling something?" she prompted, glancing from his silk tie to his briefcase. Her melodic, slightly husky voice sent a vibration through the center of Caleb's chest.
It took him a moment to respond. "I'm looking for Reed."
Her delicate brows sloped closer together with curiosity. "Is he expecting you?"
"I called a few days ago," Caleb offered evasively. He hadn't spoken to his brother, only left voice-mail messages, and he wasn't about to discuss his personal business with a stranger.
She crossed her arms over her chest and canted a slim, denim covered hip to one side. "Are you saying Reed invited you here?"
Caleb gave into curiosity. "Who are you?"
"Who are you?"
There it was again, that feeling that he'd met her somewhere before. "You live here?"
"None of your business."
She stilled for a split second, her soft, coral mouth pursing into a sexy moue. "Also, none of your business."
He struggled to be annoyed, but he found himself intrigued. "Are you going to tell me anything?"
She shook her head.
"Have we met before?" he asked.
"Is that a line?"
"It's a question."
"It's been my experience that most lines are delivered in the form of a question."
Caleb felt himself crack a reluctant smile, and her green eyes sparkled in return.
He watched her for a few moments, then conceded defeat, shifting his briefcase from his right hand before holding it out to her. "Caleb Terrell."
Her gorgeous eyes went wide and round. "Caleb?"
Before he could react, she squealed and threw herself into his arms. "You came home!"
His free arm automatically wrapped around her slender waist, returning the hug and holding her lithe body against his own. He inhaled the sweet scent of her hair and found himself desperately hoping she wasn't Reed's girlfriend.
She pulled back and gazed up into his eyes. "You don't remember me?"
He was forced to shake his head, admitting he did not.
She socked the front of his shoulder with the heel of her hand. "It's Mandy."
Caleb felt his jaw go lax. "Mandy Jacobs?"
She nodded, and he pulled her into another hug. Not that they'd been particularly close. She'd been thirteen to his seventeen when he'd left home. He was twenty-seven now. And it felt astonishingly good to hold her in his arms.
He let the hug go on a little too long, then reluctantly let her go.
"You missed the funeral." Her tone was half regretful, half accusing as she backed her way inside the house, gesturing for him to follow.
"I didn't come back for the funeral," he told her soberly as he took a step over the threshold. Reminded of his reason for being here, his mood swung back to determination.
"He was your father," she chided, turning to walk around the corner from the foyer and into the big living room.
Caleb followed, letting his silence speak for itself. Unless Mandy was hopelessly naive, she knew the history of the Terrell family. Wilton Terrell might have been Caleb's father, but he was also the meanest son of a bitch in northwestern Colorado.
Inside the startlingly familiar room, he glanced around, attempting to orient himself. Why was Mandy here, and where was Reed? "So, you and Reed are "
She shook her head. "He's not here."
"I can see that." It was a big house, two stories, four bedrooms, but if Reed had been around, Mandy's squeal would have brought him running. Now, Caleb found himself impatient to qualify her role. "You live here?"
Her look went blank. "Huh?"
He enunciated his next words. "Do you live here?"
"Are you asking me if I'm sleeping with your brother?"
"I'm asking if you're in a relationship with him, yes." That was the most obvious answer for her presence.
"I'm not." Her left eye twitched. "Either of those things."
Good. Very good. Not that it mattered to Caleb. Nothing about Lyndon Valley or the Terrell ranch mattered to Caleb. This was a temporary glitch on the thoroughfare of his life. Mandy was irrelevant.
Her tone turned tart. "But how very polite of you to inquire about my sex life."
"You're here, and he's not," Caleb reasoned. She'd answered the front door, appeared very much at home. It wasn't such a stretch to think she lived here.
She traced a finger along the beveled edge of a polished cedar side table. "I came up here to check things out." Then a cloud of concern darkened her expression. "I got worried."
"Why were you worried?"
"Because nobody's seen Reed since the funeral five days ago."
Mandy Jacobs had been Reed's close friend for nearly ten years. Before that, she'd felt something close to hero worship for him in high school, ever since the day he'd rescued her when her bikini top flew off as she dove into the Stump Lake swimming hole. The boys in her own grade had howled with laughter, stopping her girlfriends from coming into the water to help her, waiting with wide-eyed anticipation for the numbing cold to force her from the lake.
Just as she was about to give in and cover her dignity as best she could manage, Reed had come along and read the younger boys the riot act. He'd stripped off his boots and waded up to his waist, handing her his own T-shirt. He'd never even peeked while, teeth chattering and toes tingling, she'd struggled her way into the shirt while under water. And then he'd threatened the younger boys with dire consequences if they dared to tease her about it in the future.
When she came home after two years in college in Denver, she and Reed had grown closer still. Over the years, she'd learned about his mother's death, his father's cruelty and the reasons behind his fraternal twin brother, Caleb, leaving the valley.
Reed had no siblings left at home, and Mandy's two brothers did nothing but tease her. Her oldest sister, Abigail, had been a bookworm, while her younger sister, Katrina, had gone away to boarding school when she was only ten. If Mandy could have chosen a brother, it would have been Reed.
This morning, genuinely worried and determined to track him down, she'd let herself into the familiar house, listened to his phone messages, hunted her way through his letter mail, even checked his closet before realizing she wouldn't know if some of his clothes were missing or not. She did know his wallet was gone. His watch wasn't lying around and his favorite Stetson wasn't hanging on the peg in the front entry hall.
She had to believe he had left the ranch willingly. The man was built like a mountain. She couldn't imagine anyone forcing him to do anything he didn't want to do.
Still, she was very glad Caleb had shown up when he did. Something definitely wasn't right, and she could use his help to figure out what had happened.
Caleb clunked his briefcase down on the hardwood floor, interrupting her musings as he straightened beside the brown leather couch that sat in front of the picture window.
His gaze pierced hers. "Define missing?7''
"Reed left the cemetery after the funeral," Mandy explained, casting her memory back again to the events of last week, hunting for little details she might have missed that would give her a clue to what happened. "He drove off in one of the ranch pickup trucks. I assumed he was coming back here."
She focused on the row of pictures along the fireplace mantel, zeroing in on a recent one of Reed at the Lyndon Rodeo. "We all came over to the house afterward for refreshments. I didn't see him, but I didn't think that was particularly odd. He'd just lost his father and, you know, he might have wanted to be alone."
From behind her, Caleb's voice was cool. "Are you trying to tell me Reed was mourning our father?"
She turned back to face him while she framed her answer. She couldn't help contrasting the two brothers. They were about as different as two men could get. They'd both been attractive teenagers who'd grown into very handsome men. But where Reed was rugged and rangy, Caleb was much more urbane and refined.
Reed was nearly six-four, deep-chested, bulky in his arms and legs, and about as strong as an ox. His hair was dark, his eyes darker. While Caleb was closer to six-one, broad shouldered, but with leaner muscles, a chiseled chin and bright blue, intelligent, observant eyes. His hair was a lighter brown, his voice bass instead of baritone.
"Mandy?" Caleb prompted, and there was something about the sound of her name on his lips that made her heart thud an extra beat. Where on earth had that come from?
"I doubt he was mourning your father," she acknowledged.
If anything, Reed and Wilton's relationship had deteriorated after Caleb left. Wilton wasn't capable of anything but criticism, no matter how hard Reed worked. And no matter how much Reed accomplished on the ranch, his father wasn't satisfied and told him so on a regular basis.
Intimidated by the man, Mandy had visited the Terrell house only when Wilton was away. Thankfully, he was away quite often. The very definition of a crotchety old man, he seemed to prefer the company of cattle to humans, and he spent many nights in line shacks on the range.
She'd done everything she could to support Reed. When she was sixteen and Reed was twenty, Wilton had ended a particularly hostile argument by whacking Reed's shoulder with a two-by-four. Mandy had impulsively offered to marry Reed so he could move to the neighboring Jacobs ranch.
But he'd had laughed at her and tousled her hair, telling her he loved her like a sister, not a wife, and he wouldn't turn his back on his father ever again. And by then, he was big enough to defend himself against Wilton.
"He should have left when I did," Caleb broke into her thoughts again, his voice brittle.
"You should have stayed," Mandy countered, giving him her unvarnished opinion. If Caleb had been around, it would have been two against one, and Wilton would not have gotten away with so much cruelty.
Caleb's eyes crackled like agates. "And rewarded him for killing my mother, by breaking my back for him day after day?"
"Reed saw it differently." Mandy understood just how differently Reed had viewed the situation. And she admired him for it.
The Terrell Cattle Company had been the merging of both Wilton Terrell's family holdings and those of his young wife, Sasha's. After her death, through thick and thin, Reed had vowed to protect his mother's heritage. He had plans for the ranch, for his future, ways to honor his mother's memory.
Which made his disappearance, particularly now, even more confusing. Where was he?
"Reed was a fool," said Caleb.
Mandy found herself taking a step forward, squaring her shoulders, hands curling into fists by her sides, her anger rising in her friend's defense. "I love Reed."
"I thought you said"
"Like a brother''"
"Yeah?" Caleb scoffed, blue eyes glaring right back at her. "Why don't you tell me what that's like?"
His mocking tone was at odds with the trace of hurt that flashed through his eyes, and her anger immediately dissipated.
"Why did you come?" she found herself asking.
Did she dare hope Caleb had reconciliation on his mind? She'd be thrilled to see the two brothers bury the hatchet. She knew that, deep down, Reed missed his brother, and she had to believe Caleb missed Reed.
Suddenly, she remembered one of the letters she'd sorted this morning. Her heart lifted, and her chest hummed with excitement. That had to be the answer. "He was expecting you."