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Rebecca Hardaway swayed slightly on her fragile high heels and for one horrifying moment she feared she was going to topple forward and straight across the silver-and-white casket suspended over the open grave.
Dear God, give me strength, she prayed as she struggled to brace her trembling legs and stop the whirling in her head. She had to be strong. If not for herself, then out of an odd respect for the person who was about to be lowered into the earth.
Up until five days ago, Rebecca hadn't even suspected she had an aunt much less known Gertrude O'Dell existed. If Gertrude herself hadn't left strict instructions with a lawyer to notify Rebecca of her demise, she doubted she'd ever have known.
When the law offices of Barnes, Bentley and Barnes had called Bordeaux's, the department store in Houston where Rebecca worked as a fashion buyer, she'd thought a coworker had been pulling a joke on her. Her mother didn't have a twin sister in New Mexico! Surely there'd been some sort of mix-up.
But shockingly, there had been no mix-up and now questions continued to tear at Rebecca. How could such a secret have been kept for so long? Why had her mother, Gwyn, done such a thing? Her father had died eighteen years ago. Had he known about Gertrude? Or had Gwyn kept her twin sister a secret from everyone?
You don't understand, Rebecca. Gertrude and I were never close. Even though we were sisters, we were very different people. She had her own life and I had mine. We chose to go our separate ways.
Her mother's lame response to Rebecca's grilling hadn't answered anything. In fact, Gwyn was still evading her daughter's questions. And each day that passed without answers filled Rebecca with more and more resentment and puzzlement. She'd thought herself alone in the world except for her mother and now she realized she'd been cheated out of the chance of knowing her aunt!
And now it was too late. Too late.
At the head of the casket, a minister finished reading the 23rd Psalm, then added a short, comforting prayer. As Rebecca whispered "Amen," she felt a strong hand cup her right elbow.
Lifting her head, she looked straight into a pair of gold-brown eyes framed by thick black lashes. The face was partially shaded by the brim of a gray cowboy hat, but she recognized the man as one of the eight people who'd seen fit to attend her aunt's simple graveside services.
"I thought you might need a little support," he said softly. "The day is hot and grief has a way of draining a person."
Grief. Oh, yes, she was feeling all kinds of grief. She'd lost more than an aunt. She'd lost the whole foundation of her family. And her mother was still evading the truth. But this man had no way of knowing that.
"Thank you," she murmured.
A few steps away, the minister concluded the services, then offered Rebecca a few consoling words before he walked away. Beside her, the young cowboy continued to hold her elbow. He was dressed in a starched white shirt and blue jeans, the creases razor-sharp, the fabric carrying the faint scent of grass, sunshine and masculine muskiness. His hand was warm, the fingers wrapped against her skin, incredibly tough.
Who was this man, she wondered, and what connection did he have to Gertrude O'Dell?
"They'll be lowering the casket in a few moments," he said in a low husky voice. "Would you like one of the roses for a keepsake?"
Grateful for his thoughtfulness, she glanced at the lone spray of flowers lying upon the casket, then at him. "Yes. I would like that."
He dropped his hold on her arm and moved forward to pluck one of the long-stemmed roses from the ribbon binding. As he handed the flower to Rebecca, her throat thickened and tears rushed to her eyes.
Up until this moment, she'd not shed a tear or given way to the emotions washing over her like stormy waves. But something about this man's kindness had pricked the fragile barrier she'd tried to erect between her and the awful finality of her aunt's funeral.
"Thank you," she told him, then lifted her watery gaze from the rosebud to his face. His dark features were masculine and very striking, making the soft light in his eyes even more of a contrast. "I'm Rebecca Hardaway, Gertrude's niece. Did you know my aunt well, Mr." She paused as a slight blush heated her cheeks. "Uh, I'm sorry. I have to confess that I don't know any of her friends."
Once again his hand came around her elbow and with gentle urging, he moved her away from the casket and over to the limp shade of a lone mesquite tree. "My name is Jake Rollins," he told her. "And I'm sorry to say I didn't know your aunt personally. I only saw her from time to time as I drove by her place. I came to the funeral todaywell, because I thought she might like having someone say goodbye to her."
The tears in her eyes spilled onto her cheeks and she wiped helplessly at them with the pads of her fingertips. He pulled a white handkerchief from his back pocket and offered it to her.
She thanked him, then used the soft cotton to dab at the tracks of moisture on her cheeks. While she tried to gather herself together, she was keenly aware of his broad frame, the way his brown eyes were studying her. There had to be a lot of compassion in this man, she thought, for him to attend the funeral of a person he'd not really known.
He began to speak. "My friends, the Cantrellsthe people I'm here withown a ranch just west of your aunt's place. It's called Apache Wells. Maybe Gertie mentioned it to you?"
She shook her head. She didn't know how to explain to this man that she'd never spoken to Gertrude O'Dell. Never met her. It was all so unbelievable, yet terribly true. "I'm afraid not. But I do thank you and your friends for coming today. Iwell, if it weren't for you and your friends, there would have been only a handful of people here to see her laid to rest."
Faint cynicism quirked his lips. "People nowadays tell themselves they don't have time to go to funerals. If I were you, I wouldn't worry myself over the lack of mourners."
Interest suddenly sparked in her misty blue eyes. "You called my aunt Gertie," she asked. "Is that how people around here knew her?"
Jake tried not to appear stunned as he studied the beautiful woman standing before him. This couldn't be Crazy Gertie's niece, he thought. The old woman had been a recluse who'd always been dressed in old clothing and was known for firing a shotgun at anyone she didn't deem welcome on her land. Rebecca Hardaway was the complete opposite. She looked exactly like one of those women whose photographs filled a fashion magazine.
She was wearing a black dress that hugged her slender hips and draped demurely across her breasts. Her high heels were just thathigh. With little straps that fastened around her shapely ankles. A black straw hat with a wide brim and a band swathed with white chiffon covered her pale blond hair and framed a set of pale, delicate features. Her lips were red and so were her short fingernails. And even with her blue eyes filled with tears, all Jake could think was that she was one classy chick.
"Well, I'm not exactly sure about that," he said. "WeAbe, old Mr. Cantrell that isalways called her Gertie. I imagine that's what her friends called her, too."
Everyone around here had assumed Gertie had no family. Down through the years no one had witnessed any outsiders visiting. In fact, Jake figured he'd fudged when he'd pluralized the word friend. The only person who'd had much contact with the woman at all was Bess, an older lady who worked in a small grocery store in Alto. A moment ago Jake had seen her climb into her car and drive away from the cemetery. If Rebecca wanted information about Gertie, then Bess would be her best source.
"I see," she murmured.
At that moment, she glanced over her shoulder just in time to see the coffin being lowered into the ground. Sensing the sight was cutting into her, Jake moved the two of them a few more steps away from the grave site and did his best to distract her. "Did you make the trip here by yourself?" he asked.
"Yes. I live in Houston andthere was no one available to make the trip with me."
No family, husband, boyfriend? Even though Jake had already glanced at her left hand in search of a wedding ring, he found himself looking again at the empty finger. It was hard to believe a beautiful woman like her wasn't attached. And if she was, what kind of man would have allowed her to travel all this way to attend such an emotional ceremony by herself?
"That's too bad," he said. "You shouldn't be alone at a time like this."
She drew back her shoulders as though to prove more to herself than him that she wasn't about to break down. "Sometimes a person has no other choice but to be alone, Mr. Rollins."
His lips twisted to a wry slant. Women had called him plenty of things down through the years, but never Mr. Rollins. "I'm just Jake to you, ma'am." He tilted his head in the direction of the Cantrell family, then suggested, "Let me introduce you to my friends."
"I'd like that," she murmured.
For May in Lincoln County, New Mexico, the sun was hot in the cloudless sky. Every now and then a faint breeze rustled the grass in the meadow next to the lonely little cemetery and carried the scent of Rebecca Hardaway straight to Jake's nostrils. She smelled like crushed wildflowers after a rainstorm. Sweet and fresh and tempting.
Forget it, Jake. She's not your kind of woman. So just rein in that roaming eye of yours.
By now Abe, Quint and Maura had gathered near the wrought-iron gate that framed the exit to the cemetery. As Jake and Rebecca Hardaway approached the group, Maura, a pretty young woman with dark red hair, was the first to greet them. Quint, a tall handsome guy who was the same age as Jake, followed close behind his wife. Next to him, Abe moved to join the group. The elderly man was somewhat shorter than his grandson and rail-thin. His thick hair was white as snow and matched the drooping walrus mustache that covered his top lip. Abe was a legendary cattle rancher of the area and Quint was quickly following in his footsteps. Both men were like family to Jake.
Quickly, he made introductions all around and had barely gotten the last one out of his mouth before Maura reached for Rebecca's hand.
"You must be awfully weary, Ms. Hardaway," she said gently. "We'd love for you to join us at Apache Wells for refreshments. That is, if you don't have other plans."
Gertie's niece glanced at Jake as though she wanted his opinion about the invitation. The idea took him by surprise. A fancy woman like her had never asked him for the time of day. But then he had to remember that Rebecca Hardaway was obviously under a heavy weight of grief and probably not herself.
"Well, I don't know," she said hesitantly. "I wouldn't want to be a bother."
"Nonsense, young lady," Abe spoke up. "We always have the coffeepot on. And everybody's welcome. We'd enjoy having you."
Rebecca smiled at the old man, which was hardly a surprise to Jake. Even though Abe was in his mid-eighties, Quint's grandfather hadn't lost his charm with the ladies. What did surprise him was how the tilt of the woman's lips warmed her, made her appear all too soft and touchable.
"Thank you, sir," she said to Abe. "It would be nice to have a little rest before I drive back to Ruidoso."
"Great," Maura chimed in. "Just leave your car here and ride with us. The roads might be too rough for your rental car. Someone will bring you back to pick it up."
"That's kind of you," Rebecca told her. "Especially since Iwell, I'm not sure I'm up to driving at the moment."
Quint suggested it was time to get out of the hot sun and be on their way. Jake didn't waste time helping Rebecca over to the truck and into the front passenger seat.
She gave him demure thanks, but no smile and as Jake climbed into the back bench seat next to Abe, he wondered what the old man had that he didn't.
Hell, Jake. If you want a woman to smile at you all you have to do is drive down to Ruidoso and saunter into the Blue Mesa for a cup of coffee or the Starting Gate for a cold beer. There were plenty of women around those hangouts who would be more than happy to smile at you.
Yeah, Jake mentally retorted to the cynical voice in his head. He knew plenty of women who were willing to give him whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. But none of them were like Rebecca Hardaway. And if any of them were like her, he'd steer clear. He was a simple man with simple taste, he told himself. If a man understood his limitations, he was more likely to avoid trouble.
And yet as Quint guided the club cab truck over the dusty road, Jake's gaze continued to drift to the back of Rebecca Hardaway's head. Once she'd gotten settled in the leather seat, she'd removed her hat and now as she turned her head slightly to the left to acknowledge something that Quint was saying, he could see a drape of fine blond hair near her eyebrow and wispy curls tousled upon her shoulder. The strands were subtly shaded and obviously natural.
There was nothing fake about Rebecca Hardaway, he thought. At least, not on the outside. As for the inside, he'd have to guess at that. Because there was no way in hell she'd ever give a working man like him a glimpse.
Abe's cattle ranch, Apache Wells, consisted of more than a hundred thousand acres and had been in existence long before either Jake or Quint had been born. The property was only one of many the old man owned and though he was rich, Abe lived in a modest log house nestled at the edge of a piney foothill.
Once inside the cool interior, Maura and Quint quickly excused themselves to the kitchen to prepare refreshments. While Rebecca took a seat on a long couch, Abe settled himself in a worn leather recliner and Jake stood to one side trying to decide if he should escape to the kitchen with his friends or take advantage of these few minutes with the Texas wildflower.