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Jewel Mayfair shot up, heart pounding and panic suffocating her with a thick press against her chest. Her bedroom was dark except for the glow from a nightlight plugged into the socket on the wall opposite her bed.
She stared at the light, willing her heartbeat to slow and drawing deep, even breaths to calm down. She'd had the dream again. No, not a dream, it was a nightmare that had plagued her for over two years, ever since the car accident that had taken the life of her fiancé.
Andrew! Her heart cried his name as she remembered the last night they'd had together. Everything had been so perfect. She'd picked him up in her car and they'd gone to their favorite restaurant where he'd surprised her with a proposal, complete with a beautiful ring. And she'd surprised him with some news of her own.
Her hands moved to her flat abdomen. The accident hadn't just taken Andrew from her. It had also taken Andrew's child, who had been growing inside her. Grief pierced her, as rich and raw as it had been when she'd awakened in the hospital after the accident and been told of all that she had lost.
Slowly her breathing returned to normal and she glanced at the clock on her nightstand. Just after midnight. She'd been asleep for less than an hour and she knew from experience that sleep would be a long time coming again.
She slid her long legs over the side of the bed and grabbed the thin robe on the chair nearby. She belted the robe over her short nightgown, then opened the doors that led out of her master bedroom and onto a covered porch.
Despite the hour, the late August heat fell around her like an oppressive veil. Ahead of her was the pool and beyond was the woods that waspart of the Hopechest Ranch estate.
In the last six months since coming to Esperanza, Texas, she and the woods had become intimate friends. It was among the tall oaks and thick brush that she spent hours each night when she couldn't sleep. And lately that had been almost every night.
The chlorine scent of the pool hung in the air as she walked around it to the gate in the back. Opening the gate she paused and looked at the house.
It was still hard for her to believe that she was here in Esperanza, running a ranch for troubled children. The Hopechest Ranch was housed in a beautiful Spanish-style structure made of adobe with a tiled roof.
Jewel had her own quarters and there were four additional bedrooms for the children and a married couple, Jeff and Cheryl Cookson, who were part of the staff.
Seeing no lights on and knowing that if any of the children awakened, the Cooksons would take care of things, she walked out of the gate and into the cooler air beneath the trees.
A light breeze ruffled her short, sun-streaked brown hair as she walked down a well-worn path. She tried to erase from her mind the horrifying visions that haunted her sleep far too often. She was exhausted. Her insomnia was getting worse instead of better.
It was ironic that her job as a psychologist at the ranch was to help children heal from trauma and deal with problems, but for the life of her she couldn't figure out how to heal herself.
She stopped walking and leaned with her back against a huge oak trunk. Closing her eyes, she wondered if she'd ever get a full night's sleep again, if the haunting dreams would ever stop. She'd hoped that by moving from Prosperino, California, she'd leave behind the haunting memories of that accident and her loss. But they'd chased her here and if anything had gotten more intrusive over the last five months.
Her eyes popped open and she froze, every muscle in her body rigid. Had somebody just uttered her name? Or had it been the wind and an overactive imagination? Her heart banged a more rapid beat as she gazed around her.
The warm night turned icy around her as she cocked her head to listen, narrowed her eyes to see. "Hello?" she said, the word no more than a whisper.
The moonlight was full, spilling down enough light to illuminate the path, but not able to pierce the darkness of the thick woods.
She gasped. Even though she knew it was impossible, that deep male voice sounded like Andrew's.
"Andrew?" she half whispered his name as tears stung her eyes. She sensed more than saw a form just off to her right. "Andrew, is that you?" Her head filled with wild thoughts.
He hadn't really died in the car accident. It had all been a terrible mixup, a case of mistaken identity. Somehow he'd survived and he'd come here to find her.
"Andrew, wait!" she exclaimed as she saw the shadowy form moving deeper into the woods. Her heart was now pounding so hard it made her half-breathless.
Her mind went blank as she waded through brush and stepped around tree trunks. She had to find him. She was certain the voice she'd heard calling her name was Andrew's. She didn't know how that was possible, didn't care. All she wanted to do was to get to him, to feel his arms around her once again.
Goose bumps rose on her skin and she was half-dizzy as she fought the underbrush, felt the prickly bite of it against her bare legs.
She stumbled into a low-hanging branch. The whack of the limb across her forehead jarred her back to reality. And the reality was that she was in the middle of the woods chasing after a ghost.
The figure she'd been chasing was gone or had never been there, she thought. Fighting back new tears of despair, she turned and screamed as she bumped into a solid male chest.
"Jewel. It's me. Quinn Logan." His big hands grabbed her shoulders. "Are you all right? I heard you scream."
"I bumped into a tree branch." Her voice sounded far away and she mentally shook herself in an effort to get grounded.
"Come on, let's get back on the path," he said. He dropped his hands from her shoulders, but took one of her hands in his and led her back to the path.
As her mental fog lifted, she jerked her hand from his and stared at him, his handsome features visible in the full moonlight.
He had a mane of brown hair, with flecks of gold and auburn that enhanced his lean features. A scar across one of his cheeks did nothing to detract from his appeal. His topaz eyes glowed feline and, as always when Jewel looked at him, a crazy fluttering went off in her tummy.
"What are you doing out here in the middle of the night, Dr. Logan?" she asked warily. Quinn was the local veterinarian. At six foot three, he had broad shoulders and a quiet simmering energy and strength that made people believe he could handle anything a large animal might do.
"Quinn," he said. "Please make it Quinn, and unfortunately sometimes animals don't get sick during normal business hours. I've been over at Clay's place dealing with a colicky horse." Clay Colton was Jewel's cousin and he lived on the large spread next to the Hopechest Ranch.
"Is the horse all right?" she asked, and wrapped her arms around herself, unable to get back the warmth she'd felt before she'd heard that ghostly voice. Had Quinn been the shape she'd seen in the woods? Had he softly called her name?
"The horse is fine. I'm more concerned about you. You said you hit your head?" He placed two warm fingers beneath her chin and raised her face toward the light. Butterflies went off in her stomach at his touch.
"I'm fine," she said stiffly, and backed away from him.
He reached up and shoved a strand of his hair back from his eyes, gazing at her curiously. "What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?"
She hesitated a moment, then decided to be truthful. "I was having some trouble sleeping and thought maybe a walk outside would help."
"How about I walk you back to your place and see you safely inside?"
"No, thanks. That isn't necessary," she protested. She felt off balance, shocked to find him wandering the woods and still confused by thinking she'd heard somebody call her name.
All she wanted to do was get back to the house and into the safety of her own room. At the moment she felt distinctly unsafe, even though Quinn didn't appear threatening in any way.
"I'll just say good night now," she said. She whirled around and hurried back in the direction of the house, grateful when he didn't try to stop her.
She didn't relax until she was settled in her room with the doors locked. She lingered at the door, peering outside, but there was no sign of anyoneghosts or otherwise.
Moving away from the door, she took off her robe and climbed back into bed. Her heart still thudded with adrenaline and she knew sleep would be far off, if at all.
She'd gone a little crazy out in the woods, thinking that she heard Andrew's voice calling her, believing for a moment that he was someplace out there in the dark woods.
Or was it possible that Quinn had been playing a cruel game with her? She frowned as she thought of the handsome vet. She'd only run into him a half a dozen times since her arrival in town and usually that was out at Clay's place. But, on each of those occasions, she'd been acutely aware of him, had felt more than a little bit of attraction.
There had been a moment when his warm hands had been on her shoulders when she'd wanted to throw herself against him, feel the heat and strength of his arms enfolding her in an embrace.
She closed her eyes and remembered the sensation of his fingers beneath her chin. It had been so long since a man had touched her in any way. Was it any wonder she'd reacted to his simple touches?
She didn't know what worried her more, the fact that she might be losing her mind or that she was attracted to a man who might, for whatever reason, be playing games with her sanity?
Mornings were chaotic at the Hopechest Ranch and the next morning was no different. The sounds of childish laughter awakened Jewel just after seven and she blessed Cheryl and Jeff Cookson who would be in the kitchen preparing breakfast for the seven children who were currently residents.
The children's ages ranged from ten to thirteen, the eldest a girl who had arrived the previous day from Chicago.