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"I'm Cruz Déclan. I'm looking for my father."
The first words out of his mouth weren't the ones he'd planned. But nothing in the last two years of his life had gone according to plan. He'd gotten used toeven if he was still uncomfortable withacting on instinct, making decisions without the luxury of deliberation.
Though he'd had the time to think it over, this decision to come to Rancho Pintada and confront Jed Garrett, the father he'd never known, hadn't been any different.
Showing up unannounced at the wedding reception now seemed overly dramatic, the kind of gesture they made in bad TV movies. Weeks ago, when he'd made up his mind to meet the father who'd abandoned him before he was born, he'd wanted to be done with it and Garrett, by inviting him to his youngest son's wedding, had offered the perfect opportunity.
Standing in the entryway of his father's house, Cruz wasn't so sure about his decision.
He knew without being told the man looking back at him with a slightly stunned expression was his brotherone he hadn't known existed until a few months ago. It was a disconcerting sensation, recognizing the line and shape of his own features on a stranger's face. It heightened the sense of unreality that had hit him the moment he'd stepped in the door.
The other man recovered quickly and held out a hand. Cruz accepted the brief, firm contact automatically, telling himself it was no more than he'd do greeting a business prospect or a new client, wishing it didn't feel like a lot more.
"Cort Morente. I'm your brother." He stopped, seeming to search for the right thinganythingto say. "I'm sorry. I didn't None of us expected"
"Yeah, I didn't expect, either," Cruz interrupted. "I didn't expect to get a letter and then a wedding invitation from someone I wouldn't know if he walked into me. Even if he does claim to be my father."
"I think we can safely say it's more than a claim," Cort said with a slight smile. "You won't be able to hide your connection to Jed now. When people see you, me and Sawyer together, there won't be any question."
The reference took a moment to sink in and then Cruz remembered from Garrett's letter. There were four of them, all younger than himSawyer, Rafe, Cort and Josh. Garrett hadn't told him much more than that.
"I'm not the one who's been hiding it," Cruz said with a touch of acid.
"Fair enough." There was another of those awkward pauses and then Cort said, "Sawyer, Rafe and Josh would want to know you're here."
Cruz said nothing; better that than something he'd regret. No doubt all four of them would be interested in his sudden appearance since Garrett, in his letter, had made it clear his purpose in tracking down his oldest son after thirty-five years was to give Cruz an equal share in Rancho Pintada. He guessed that wouldn't have been welcome news to his recently discovered brothers.
Interpreting his silence as reluctance, Cort added, "This whole thing is a lot more complicated than you know. At least listen to it all before you make up your mind about us. Give me a minute to find them."
He didn't give Cruz a chance to say no and quickly headed into the great room ahead, leaving Cruz at the edge of the throng of wedding guests. A few glanced his way, curious, already speculating. He ignored them, taking a few steps to the side, focusing on scanning faces in the crowd for a clue to the identity of his other brothers or Garrett.
A few minutes later, Cort walked up with three other men, including the groom, who spoke up first. "Leave it to Dad to pull something like this without lettin' any of us in on it." He offered his hand with a grin. "I'm Josh Garrett and Cort's rightno doubt you're one of us."
Cruz thought that of any of them, it was Josh, dark blond and lankier than his older brothers, whom someone might question being related to the rest of them. Then Cort introduced Sawyer and Rafe. Cruz noted the clear evidence of Rafe's Native American heritage and decided Cort was rightit was more complicated than he knew.
"I'm sorry you had to find out about this the way you did. It must have been a helluva surprise," Sawyer said. "But none of us knew you existed until recently."
Rafe gave a derisive huff. "The old man's good for surprises."
"We wanted to find you before Jed did," Cort said. "Maybe we could have eased the shock."
With a laugh, Josh put a hand on Cort's shoulder. "Cort's the family peacemaker," he explained. "But I think even he might have a hard time makin' this family reunion go smoothly."
"And Josh is the hell-raiser," Sawyer added. "Or he was until he let Eliana settle him down."
Rafe smiled a little. "He didn't let hershe had him roped and tied before he knew what hit him."
From the moment he'd walked in the door, Cruz never felt more the outsider than he did now. They'd accepted him without question as a brotheralthough he didn't see as they'd had much choicebut there was obviously a strong bond among the four of them that didn't include him. He had no doubt where their loyalties would be if any one of them sensed he was a threat to their tight-knit group.
It was equally obvious that bond didn't extend to Jed Garrett. "I get the impression none of you are anxious for me to meet" Cruz stopped, not quite sure what to call the man "Garrett."
"You won't be, either," Rafe muttered.
The four of them exchanged glances, guarded, with meanings Cruz couldn't decipher.
"Jed's never been much of a father to any of us," Sawyer finally said.
"Maybe not," a rough, gravelly voice spoke up from behind, "but that doesn't change the fact I am." The newcomer, tall, built like a bull, with grizzled hair and hard dark eyes, moved slowly forward to stand eye-to-eye with Cruz. "I see you decided to show up after all."
With an effort of sheer will, Cruz reined in the surge of anger and resentment, never expecting it to be so strong. This was what he'd wanted, to come face-to-face with Jed Garrett after a lifetime of knowing nothing about the man he could call his father.
He looked Garrett straight in the eye and, keeping his voice cool and level, said, "I'll admit to being curious. It's not every day I find out I've got more family than my mother."
"Your mother " Jed slowly shook his head. "It's been a long time since I saw Maria. Since before you were born. She never told me anything about you. I had to find it out for myself. And I'm guessin' she never told you about me, either."
"Why should she? She was eighteen and pregnant and you couldn't get her out of town fast enough."
"I never promised her anything. But that didn't stop her from expectin' I was gonna give up everything to marry her."
"So why the sudden interest in me now?" Cruz countered. "Am I supposed to believe you've developed a guilty conscience after thirty-five years without one, guilty or otherwise?"
"I got my reasons," Jed answered.
"Now's not the time," Cort interrupted. He put himself in between Jed and Cruz. "We need to do this some other place, where we can talk without half the town listening in."
"Far as I'm concerned, you all can keep this up for the rest of the night," Josh said. "But I've got a new wife waitin' on me and I intend to get her alone before too much longer."
For several moments Cruz thought it was even odds whether Jed would refuse. Part of him sided with Garrett; he wanted to finish it, here and now. But the idea of becoming the town's front-page gossip any sooner than he had to swung him in favor of Cort.
"Fine," Jed growled, shooting a glare at Cort before fixing his attention back on Cruz. "But I want it to happen soon. I've wasted enough time gettin' the five of you together. I don't plan on wastin' any more."
He turned and started shouldering his way through the crowd, leaving Cruz alone with four strangers he was supposed to call family and the feeling he should have let this part of his past stay secret and buried.
She was really starting to hate weddings.
And not just weddings, either. Holidays, babies, engagements the whole gamut of happy life-changing family events.
A gust of cold wind rattled the windows of the Florida room and Aria Charez shivered, wishing for the tenth time since she'd come here to escape the festivities that she'd brought a wrap. The bridesmaid's dress blessedly had long sleeves, but the pale gold satiny stuff it was made from wasn't doing much to ward off the chill. Maybe it was someone trying to tell her she shouldn't be hiding to begin with.
It seemed like there'd been so many of these big events in the past months among her friends: Cort getting married and adopting a son; Saul Tamar, Eliana's father, marrying Darcy Vargas; now Josh and Eliana. Even Darcy's wild daughter, Nova, was engagedNova, who was probably the person voted least likely to ever settle down when they were in high school.
Not that Aria wasn't happy for her friends; she was. But their happy events had a way of making her maudlin, giving her a sharp reminder she wasn't married, didn't have kids, a significant other or even a pet, and that holidays were never all they were advertised to be.
It shouldn't matter. She had so much and there was so much she still wanted to do.
But it was times like these when she felt a strong tug of longing for fulfillment that her professional success couldn't satisfy; a sense of regret for all the relationships she'd managed to mess up in one way or another and the bad choices she couldn't take back.
It was someone commenting for the umpteenth time on her lack of a date for the reception that had prompted Aria to murmur an excuse and find her way to one of the only rooms in the huge ranch house that wasn't being used tonight. The music and voices from the reception were a low hum here and she could pretend they were far away. She hadn't bothered with lights, just curled up in a corner of the settee near the window and watched the wind scatter ragged clouds across the moon and stars.
The solitude hadn't given her any peace, though, and with a sigh, she decided she'd wallowed in self-pity long enough. Groping for her shoes where she'd tossed them at the other end of the couch, she slid them on and started to get up when the sound of footsteps froze her.
Hoping it was someone who'd gotten lost looking for a bathroom, she stayed still, willing whoever it was to keep on walking. That was all she needed, someone finding her hiding in the dark like a sulky child.
She wasn't that lucky. Whoever it was paused outside the room and then came inside, straight past her to stand in front of the windows and look out at the expanse of land and sky that seemed to run for miles until it hit the mountains.
From his silhouette Aria could tell it was a man, tall, broad-shouldered, holding himself tensely, his hands fisted at his sides. She didn't want to disturb whatever escape he'd come for, but she also didn't want to sit here, unmoving, hoping he wouldn't notice her and then having to explain herself when he did.
She stood up, the silk of her dress softly rustling. He whipped around so fast she jumped and nearly lost her balance.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"Since I was here first, I should be asking you that question." Aria reached over and flipped on the lamp next to the settee, then almost wished she hadn't. In the dim light, he looked bigger and a bit intimidating, with the expert cut of his suit and short, cropped hair emphasizing his hard, lean build. At first glance, she thought hedark, good-looking, with an aura of wealth and commandwould have easily fit into any high-powered business setting. Yet there was something about him, a touch of the gypsy, sensual and secretive, that roughened his polished edges and made him sexy as hell.
"I'm sorry," he said shortly. He looked her over in one sweeping glance. "I didn't expect anyone else to be here."
"Neither did I." Aria tried for a smile and a light, casual tone. "It's okay. You just interrupted my private orgy of self-pity. Believe me, it needed to be interrupted." A little embarrassed at her honest admission, she hurried to say, "I'm Aria Charez. I don't remember seeing you at the wedding. Are you a friend of Josh's?" He didn't look like one of Josh's usual crowd, but there was something vaguely familiar about his face that gave her the impression she knew him or had seen him before.
"Not exactly." His expression was shuttered. "Cruz Déclan. And I wasn't there."
"Cruz" Suddenly it clicked. He seemed familiar because he looked like Cort and Sawyer. "You must be"
"The long-lost brother." His half smile quirked his mouth but didn't reach his eyes. "I decided to make my grand entrance tonight after thirty-five years of being a secret."
"I didn't realize Josh had invited you. I mean, no one said anything " Aria stopped, not quite knowing how to phrase it without offending him. Everyone had been talking about him and the whole story of how Jed Garrett had seduced an innocent teenager, gotten her pregnant and then dumped her in favor of marrying Teresa Morente and her money. Eliana, one of her closest friends, had told her how Jed had been looking for his oldest son but had been frustrated for the past two years because Cruz, a captain in the army reserves, had been on overseas duty. She hadn't mentioned Cruz might show up tonight.
"Josh didn't invite me. It was Garrett." Bitterness in his voice gave it an edge as sharp and jagged as broken glass. "It looks like my so-called father wanted to surprise my brothers."
"I'm sorry. I can't imagine how you must feel, discovering you have a family you never knew."
"I can't imagine it, either. I'm beginning to believe ignorance is underrated." Cruz walked over to sit on the edge of the settee. Leaning forward, his forearms resting on his knees, hands laced tightly together, he stared at the floor.
She didn't know him well enough to interpret his mood.