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Eliza Harvey-Reed always felt better when she was busy planning parties. Just a day into her vacation and she already missed the hustle and bustle of Effervescent Events. She'd made a name for herself in Hollywood and had a reputation for delivering flawless, flamboyantly entertaining service. Fun. Exciting. Newsworthy. That was her business. She'd rather be back in California than in her hometown of Vengeance, Texas, climbing out of the rental car to visit her husband's brother, the object of a teenage crush she'd never quite forgotten.
Except, to her, it had been more than a crush. She hadn't realized how much more until he'd ended their relationship. Things had grown hot and heavy between them. He had begun to rule her world. She'd had so much ambition back then. Still did. He had begun to feel like an anchor, a hot, hard, sexy anchor, but an anchor nonetheless. And then he'd dumped her. Out of the blue. She hadn't seen it coming. If there was to be any dumping going on, she had thought it would have been her. He'd begun to matter more than he should.
Sometimes she wondered if his rejection had elevated him to some unnatural level of importance. People always wanted what they couldn't have. More expensive cars. Bigger houses. Better vacations. More chocolate. When denied these things, they became suspiciously more important. Brandon Reed had become too important.
Walking toward the front porch of the Reed Ranch house on a wide stone circular driveway, Eliza noticed her husband, David, look behind him again. He kept doing that. When they'd turned onto the long dirt road leading to the ranch, he'd checked the rearview mirror more than once. When he'd gotten out of the car, he'd checked the road. Now he was doing it again.
Her long, dark brown hair waved in the slight breeze as she looked toward the road. No cars. No people. No animals. It wasn't dark yet. A winding dirt road disappeared over a hill several hundred yards away. The expensive copper fence lined one side; a carpet of green grass rolled to the edge of a thick stand of trees.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
His austere profile only stoked her concern. "Is Brandon expecting more company?"
That meant leave him alone. He'd changed since they'd run into each other at one of her parties and followed impulse to a quick Vegas wedding. He never talked to her about anything that bothered him. She tried to get him to open up, but he always responded with short answers. If there was one thing she'd learned about him in the short time they'd been married, it was that David Reed could keep secrets. Had those secrets gotten him into trouble?
His dark brown eyes scanned the surroundings again. A couple of inches shorter than Brandon's six-two, he was handsome and blonder but not as rugged as his brother. Why she always made those comparisons, she'd rather not examine.
"You're acting like Bruce Willis in one of his Die Hard movies."
"I'm not in the mood, Eliza."
"Did you piss off a hacker or something?" She couldn't help her sarcasm. He was nothing like Bruce Willis.
He scowled at her before stepping onto the porch. This was how they spoke to each other now. Why had she married him, anyway? She was afraid the answer was just on the other side of the door.
Brandon Reed had captured her heart when she was sixteen. Try as she might to capture his all those years ago, she'd never succeeded. Absurdly, she thought marrying his brother would trip him up. Get him to realize what a mistake he'd made letting her go. Well, all she'd gotten was a terse congratulations over the phone and a question on where her next party was. He may have been jealous. He may have been unaffected. Eliza had no idea which. With him, reactions were never easy to ascertain. The man wore his personality like a sunken ship, hidden treasure locked away in a deep abyss. He and David had that in common. Except Brandon's mysteries lured her more than David's.
David froze at the door.
Eliza turned. At the top of the hill, a car had appeared. Instead of driving to the house, it made a U-turn and vanished. Who was that? Someone who was lost? Or was it David who'd attracted them here?
"Is someone following you?" she asked.
Turning his grim face away from the road, he opened the door without responding.
"You've been acting weird lately." Inside, she put her purse down on a table against the wall, vaguely aware of another purse there.
"No, I haven't." He quietly closed the door.
She faced him. "David. Talk to me. What's going on with you? Is someone after you?"
"Eliza," he complained, stepping past her with an admonishing look.
"Just tell me."
He ignored her.
Sighing with exasperation, she stepped from the new marble flooring of the entry to the hardwood floor of the living room. Earth tones and splashes of red accents popped out at her. The exposed vaulted ceiling extended to a formal dining room. Brandon must have hired someone to do the decorating. She couldn't picture him doing it. A lot of years had passed since she'd seen him, but he couldn't have changed that much.
As she heard voices in the kitchen behind a partial wall, Eliza's heart jolted with shock. There was a purse on the entry table. Brandon wasn't alone. A woman was in the kitchen with him. Why was she nervous about seeing him, regardless of whether he was with another woman or not? She was married. There was no chance for them. There never had been. So why did she still put so much importance on him?
The woman laughed, flirtatious, warm and soft. Eliza's stomach soured with more churning. "We should have called to let him know we were early." They weren't supposed to be here until tomorrow.
David stopped, turning toward her. "Don't like it that he's with someone else, huh?"
"Why would that bother me?"
"You tell me."
She smirked. He'd started accusing her of marrying him to spite his brother shortly after their wedding. She'd fantasized about making Brandon jealous, that's all. There had never been a time that she actually believed he would be. If only that were possible. Brandon didn't care about her.
"They might want to be alone," she said.
"Maybe you'd like to be alone with him."
Now he was going too far. "Is that why you cheated on me four months after our wedding?"
"Yes." He started toward the kitchen again.
His cruel reply dug deep. He hurt her when he talked to her like that. Did he really think she was still pining for his brother? Why had he married her then? Brandon was her first love. They were kids when they were together. She'd never forget him because he'd been her first. That didn't mean she still wanted him.
Maybe this was about more than David's insecurities where his brother was concerned. David shared her enthusiasm for parties, but he overindulged. Women. Alcohol. Drugs. If she didn't know better, she'd think he was one of her famous Hollywood clients instead of a sports journalist and husband.
Eliza crossed the living room behind David, hearing dishes clanking and the soft tone of the woman's voice. The dread she'd felt ever since boarding the plane in L.A. intensified.
She wished David would have done as she had asked and taken her to a hotel. She'd planned a big birthday party for her brother tomorrow night and had a lot of loose ends to tie up. She'd rather do that than face Brandon with his latest lover.
The dread wouldn't ease. Normally, when she visited Vengeance, it was for business. She only squeezed in enough time to see her brother, and those visits she always kept deliberately short. Ryker Harvey never missed an opportunity to point out how lucky she was to have escaped this town. She didn't understand why he wasn't happy. He had a really great wife and two adorable children. He ran an auto repair shop in town and had a stellar reputation. Everyone loved him. What more could he possibly want?
She hoped her party would smooth things over between them. He hadn't seemed very excited the last time she'd spoken with him.
"Always partying," he'd commented blandly just before he'd thanked her.
Eliza entered the kitchen behind David. A news program broadcasted from a small television hanging in the far corner. Brandon's deep chuckle ended abruptly when he looked up and saw them, those golden-brown eyes going hard as he spotted her. His thick, shaggy, dark blond hair was a little on the messy side, and stubble peppered his jaw. He'd aged but in an appealing, masculine way. Rugged. Just like she remembered.
The woman he was with had long dark hair like Eliza's and beautiful blue eyes. Eliza's were blue-green. Brandon's tall, muscular body dwarfed her, his broad shoulders sloping and his biceps bulging as he held the woman around her tiny waist. Eliza was slightly taller than her. Did Brandon prefer smaller women? Not that Eliza was big. She had a nice shape.
He stepped back, and the woman's smile slipped as his hands left her. "I didn't hear you come in."
David walked farther into the kitchen, stopping next to the long island. "We decided to come a day early. Eliza has a lot to do before her brother's birthday party tomorrow night."
Brandon continued to stare at Eliza.
"We're planning to attend," the woman said, leaning against him, angling her head as though trying to capture his attention.
"Eliza," Brandon said.
The woman with him straightened, eyes taking on the threat that Eliza must present. "I'm Jillian Marks. Brandon's girlfriend."
"Sorry," Brandon said. "Jillian, this is my brother, David."
The woman extended a dainty hand to him. "And this is Eliza Harvey."
A flash of malice crossed through Jillian's eyes as she extended her hand.
"Reed," David corrected.
Eliza removed her hand from Jillian's, wondering why her husband bothered with the name correction. He'd proven how much he cared for her when he'd slept with someone else. Unless he was jealous of Brandon and that was why he'd cheated on her. Eliza didn't know what to do about that. Had her inability to let go of Brandon really driven him away before they'd even had a chance to get started? She couldn't even feel guilty about that. Brandon didn't want her. Why was David worried?
"You're married," Jillian said, smiling at Eliza.
"Mr. and Mrs. Reed," Brandon said tersely.
"Could have been you, big brother," David said snidely.
Brandon didn't respond. His face became a blank mask as he looked at David.
"You and Brandon were "
"In high school," David finished her deduction.
While Jillian's eyes went cold, David moved in a circle, checking out the huge, elegant kitchen equipped with every modern amenity imaginable. "The place looks good. Selling a lot of beef?"
It was a poor attempt to sound cordial.
If Brandon took offense, he hid it. "Record year."
"Brandon is a smart businessman when it comes to cattle." Jillian hooked her arm with his and smiled flirtatiously up at him. It was all a forced show, a defensive reaction to Eliza and what her presence meant.
Brandon didn't return the smile. In fact, he moved away. Her arm slipped free of his, and her smile flattened.
"You always were good at taking care of yourself," David said, fingering a bowl of fruit on the kitchen island as though making sure it was real.
Brandon ignored the barb and moved another inch or two away from Jillian. How long had they been seeing each other? Long enough for Brandon to feel cornered, it would appear.
Seeing the way David distastefully regarded his brother, she wondered if she was the sole cause of his unrest. When they were kids, she'd thought they had a normal relationship. Brandon was the older brother and acted that way. But Brandon was also taller, made more money and had stolen Eliza's heart when she was a teenager. He had everything that David didn't. And now he thought she still had feelings for Brandon. Though she'd tried to convince him he had nothing to worry about, he didn't believe her.
That was the only reason she hadn't left him after she'd caught him between an entertainment reporter's legs. She still wasn't over what he'd done. She wasn't sure she could stay married to him. And she definitely hadn't had sex with him since. He believed she loved Brandon and not him. Did that give him the go-ahead to cheat on her when she denied his accusations?
"Do you have anything to drink?" David headed for the kitchen entry without waiting for Brandon's reply.
He'd had enough to drink on the plane already.
"You know where the wine is," Brandon said drily.
David left the kitchen, no doubt planning on getting more than one bottle. Why was he drowning in alcohol lately? Was it his perception of his older brother and Eliza or something else? The car on the hill gave her some insight, but he wouldn't talk to her. They'd never talked, not the way they should as a married couple. More and more she thought their marriage was a sham, the result of blind impulse. While a deeper part of her had reasoned he was the next best thing to Brandon, reality hadn't been kind. The mistake she'd made expanded and bloomed. As much as it hurt, she was better off alone than marrying the wrong man.
Realizing she was still staring at the empty doorway David had gone through, Eliza turned and caught Brandon watching her. His gaze drifted down her body before going back to her face. He seemed neither hurried nor concerned what she or Jillian would think of such blatant inspection. He hadn't looked at her like that since she was a sophomore in high school; only now he was a man, not a boy. A warm rush swept over her, an instant reaction. He'd always been able to do that to her.
David entered the kitchen with three bottles of red wine and saw them. His steps faltered as he pinned Eliza with an accusatory look. Brandon glanced at Jillian before busying himself with retrieving wineglasses. She missed it, her glaring gaze on Eliza. David passed his wife on his way to the kitchen island, where he put down the bottles.
Eliza wandered past the kitchen island and stopped before the table, trying to dismiss the significance of the way Brandon had looked at her. What did it mean? Had he seen something when she'd been lost in thought? Did he know she wasn't happy?
She spotted a newspaper on the table. The headline read Darby College Professor Melinda Grayson Missing.
"Here you go, darling." David handed her a glass of red wine.
She smirked at the way he'd said darling and took the glass, holding the paper in her other hand.
"What are you" He stopped short when he read the headline. "Professor Grayson is missing?" He took the newspaper from her.
"I heard her housekeeper reported it," Jillian said.
David turned with the paper and kept reading as he strode slowly to the kitchen island, putting down the paper. "It says she might have been on her way to the grocery store when she was taken."
Eliza followed him and put her glass down. David had placed the three bottles of wine on the counter. Brandon and Jillian had yet to pour wine into their glasses.
"She didn't leave willingly," Brandon said. "She had all her material ready for the semester."
"Who would kidnap her?"
David's concern didn't pass by Eliza. If Melinda wasn't so much older than him, she'd wonder if he'd slept with her. Then again, ten years wasn't all that much. Melinda was in her early forties.
"Probably someone who didn't like her views," Jillian said, nearly sneering. She obviously didn't like Melinda.
"Did you go to Darby?" Eliza asked. The woman had to be around twenty-five so it was more than possible.
"Yes. And I hated Melinda's class."
Melinda was known for her controversial teachings. She was a feminist who thought men were superior and women's movements had the wrong approach to gaining equality. Porn stars were true feminists because of the control they had over men. Sociopaths improved society. That sort of thing.
But Jillian's tone hinted at deeper emotion. Brandon and David caught her animosity along with Eliza. Brandon said nothing as he assessed her, and David abandoned the newspaper to do the same.
"That sounds like motive to kidnap and hurt her," David said.
Jillian's chin rose an inch. "Just because she wasn't my friend doesn't mean I'd hurt her."
David let it pass, lifting his wine for a drink.
Eliza saw how Jillian slid a self-conscious glance toward Brandon, as though anxious that he'd think less of her for voicing her opinion of the great Melinda Grayson. The sign of insecurity said a lot about the state of their relationship. Eliza almost felt sorry for her. Brandon must be close to running.