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Panic gripped Kylie as Brock Warner entered her room Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, her enforced stay in the hospital since Friday had given her too much time to remember her confrontation with Trish Hammond.All she'd been able to think about was her husband's infidelity.
Now here was his half brother! How had he found out about her accident? Was he going to try to convince her to sell Saddle Ridge?
"What are you doing here?" Her emotions were so raw the question had just popped out.
Shoving his black Stetson higher on his forehead, Brock stopped beside the chair where Kylie sat. "Dix called me. He was worried sick about you."
Her foreman shouldn't have meddled. "I'm fine."
"Don't you just look fine." Brock's thick black eyebrows quirked up as he took notice of her sling, then the bruise on her forehead.
Her brother-in-law's Apache blood was evident in the hue of his skin, the dark somberness of his eyes and the jet blackness of his hair. Brock Warner emanated a sensuality when he walked, when he talked and when he smiled, in a way she'd seen in few men. It had given her a jumbled, off-balance sensation when she was a teenager...and still did now. She remembered the night she graduated from high school, the night she'd kissed him and—
She stood, pride and courage taking over for her and her unborn child. "I'm sorry Dix dragged you here from... wherever you were."
"Texas," Brock filled in. "Between consultations."
"When did you arrive?" she asked warily, her gaze taking in everything about him. She hadn't seen him since Jack Warner's funeral five years ago...when Brock's new wife had accompanied him.
"I got in about an hour ago. Dix looked worn out, so I offered to come get you."
Concern for Dix took away her annoyance at his interference. He'd been a friend of her father's and had looked out for her in a quiet way since he'd gotten her a job at Saddle Ridge. They were both worn out. Trying to keep the ranch afloat without any outside help had been wearing on them long before Alex had died.
Brock's gaze softened a bit as it slid from her loose blond hair to her maternity top. "I'm sorry about what happened to Alex."
Brock had said that on the phone after he'd missed Alex's funeral. He'd been doing whatever geologists did somewhere in Central America. Away from civilization, he hadn't called his home in Texas for messages in over a week. When he finally had, he'd phoned her and learned about the bull-riding accident that had taken his brother's life. By that time, though, Alex was buried and she hadn't wanted Brock to learn the condition of Saddle Ridge. It was during that phone call she'd told him she was pregnant but managing perfectly fine.
"I'm sorry for your loss, too," she said quietly, knowing Brock had cared deeply about Alex.
"The last time I talked to him he was in Utah. I should have kept in touch more often," Brock said with real regret.
The crack in Kylie's heart grew a little wider when she thought about the last time she had talked to Alex. After he'd left early for his last rodeo, she was sure their marriage had been over. With what she'd found out from Trish Hammond, it had been over long before that day.
A smiling nurse bustled into the room, cast an admiring look at Brock, then handed Kylie a few papers. "Here are Dr. Marco's instructions. I understand he went over them with you this morning."
Kylie studied the checklist. For the most part, she was supposed to rest for the next two weeks.
Brock took them from her hands. "I spoke with your doctor a few minutes ago. I told him I'd make sure you followed his recommendations."
"What do you mean you'll make sure? Go back to Texas, I don't need you here. Dix should never have called you."
"You should have called me long before this. One look at the place—" He shook his head. "There will be time enough for this discussion. Right now, let's get you home."
When Brock took her elbow, Kylie's knees felt wobbly. She could smell the piney musk of his aftershave, feel the strength in his large hand. She had once dreamed of more than friendship with Brock Warner, but he'd dismissed her as too young for his consideration. He'd come home with a wife and that had told Kylie, more than anything else, that she'd never belong in his life.
Six months after that, she'd married Alex.
She and Alex had gone to school together. He'd teased her in the play yard. They'd shared homework. When her pop died and she'd had to sell their homestead to pay debts, when she'd moved to Saddle Ridge and taken a room above the barn to be a groom to the horses, Alex had still seemed more like a brother than a suitor. Then suddenly, after his dad died, he'd turned the full extent of his cowboy charm on her. Not only that, he'd needed her. He'd poured out his grief to her and she'd shared his loss...because she'd lost her own dad. Never one to sit still long enough to figure out numbers,Alex had asked her to help him with the bookkeeping, and he'd found her suggestions made sense.Yet he'd had his own agenda. Marrying her had only been a part of it.
Now, she didn't know if he'd ever really loved her. She had loved him, in a loyal, until-death-do-us-part kind of way. She'd wanted to have children with him. She'd wanted to raise a brood—sons and daughters who would always have each other and the legacy of Saddle Ridge to depend upon. But Alex had wanted to postpone having kids and it wasn't until they'd been married a couple of years that she'd really understood he'd never grown up himself, that he'd intended to ride the rodeo circuit until he was too old to care about conquering the next ornery bull.
When a volunteer came into the room with a wheel-chair, Kylie pulled away from Brock's clasp. "I can walk. I don't need—"
"Hospital policy," the nurse announced cheerily. Brock hefted up the worn, leather duffel bag that had been her pop's. "I'll take this to the car and meet you at the front entrance."
As Brock left the hospital room, Kylie almost felt dizzy with relief. Then she reminded herself the woozy feeling probably had come from the concussion. Concussion or not, she was clearheaded about one important fact—she would never depend on Brock Warner. He was not going to look after her...or interfere in her life.
A short time later, Brock picked her up at the hospital's entrance in a white SUV. They'd driven in silence for about five minutes when Kylie cut the awkward tension. "Did you rent this?"
"Yes. For now. But after what happened to your truck, I'll be going to look for something to replace it."
"Dix said it could be repaired."
"It had a broken ball joint and it's fifteen years old. With over one hundred and fifty thousand miles, it's time to let go of it, Kylie."
Holding on to the first vehicle she'd ever owned hadn't been strictly sentimentality. She simply couldn't afford to replace it. "I'll check the paper for used trucks."
"Don't worry about that. I'll take care of it. The ranch could use a new one. What happened to the crew-cab Alex won?"
So Brock had known about that, Kylie realized. Two years ago, a prize at one of the rodeo competitions had been a brand-spanking-new silver truck but it had been a gas guzzler. "I sold it."
"Why didn't you keep it and get rid of yours?" Because she couldn't have gotten anything for hers. "I did what I thought was best."
The message she sent was clear—the truck she drove was none of his business.
Brock's jaw tightened and deep furrows dented his forehead.
Turning away from him, she stared out the side window. If he thought he could come in here and just ride rough-shod over her, he was sadly mistaken.
"Why didn't you call me and tell me Saddle Ridge was going to hell?" Brock demanded of Dix an hour later.
The pre-Thanksgiving wind held an icy bite as Brock turned from the foreman to scrutinize the outside of the barn, with its peeling paint, the few horses loose in the corral and the acres of land that used to be peppered with at least five hundred head of Angus, but now only boasted about fifty.
Brock shook his head with disbelief. "Maybe instead of waiting for a call from me, you should have come home to see what was going on."
Brock stared out over the sections of Warner land. "There was no place for me here. There never was, and you know that."
"What I know is that you can be as stubborn as your father was."
Jack Warner hadn't been a real parent to him, though he'd fathered him and given him his name. He'd married Brock's mother to save face. The smart, handsome, rich Jack Warner couldn't handle the reputation of being a scoundrel, of sleeping with a woman and then turning his back on her when she got pregnant...even if she were Apache. He'd married her and Brock had been born here, but had never felt as if Jack Warner had cared one bit for him. And he'd always known why. His skin was the wrong color. His hair was coal-black, like his mother's, not blond like his father's. The bottom line was Jack had never loved Brock's mother. He hadn't really wanted her as a wife. He'd never wanted Brock.
Brock glanced over at the house where he'd grown up but never really belonged. The roof was missing a few shingles and the porch steps looked as if they should be replaced. "When did this start happening?"
"After your daddy passed."
That brought Brock's gaze to Dix's again. "Alex let it go like this?"
"You think this happened in the four months since he died? Look again, son. This neglect has taken years. Kylie's worked harder than any man I know. The two of us have tried to keep up, but we couldn't. With Alex gone so much—"
"Bull riding. Chasing the next belt buckle or purse. Always expecting to win the Grand Championship and never doin' it. I do understand why you didn't come back here since your daddy died. His will was a slap in the face, leaving the place to Alex, and only giving you half of it if he sold it. But why didn't you come back here after Alex died?"
"I was in a jungle. I never got the message aboutAlex until after the funeral. I called Kylie then. Didn't she tell you?"
"No, she didn't. What did she tell you?"
"She mentioned she was pregnant, but she said everything was fine."
"And just what else was she supposed to say with you in another country and her here?"
"She could have told me the truth."
"In Kylie's mind, she probably was fine," Dix admitted, blowing out a huge breath. "She has plans to turn this place around after the baby's born."
"What kind of plans?"
"Teaching more classes. Boarding more horses. Training more two-year-olds."
"Yes, she is. About her baby's future. She didn't tell you what was going on because she didn't want you to know, is my guess. You proved you didn't care about Saddle Ridge by staying away. I wouldn't have called you, except the doc says she's supposed to take it easy for the next couple of weeks. I knew I couldn't handle this myself. I hate admitting it, but it's true." Dix's red beard was laced with some gray now. The lines on his weathered face were deep and counted every one of his sixty-two years.