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HOT LIKE FIRE
By NIOBIA BRYANT
Dafina BooksCopyright © 2007 Niobia Bryant
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTwo Months Later
As soon as the alarm clock sounded and woke him from his sleep, Kade Strong rolled out of bed. No snoozing. No lounging. No adjusting to being awake. No sitting on the side of the bed until he got out of that half asleep-half awake zone. Just up and at 'em. It was time for a hard day's work, and he didn't mind it one bit.
Five years ago, when his father decided to semi-retire from running the daily operation of the ranch, he turned it over to Kade, his oldest son. And Kade had been profoundly touched that his father had entrusted him with Strong Ranch. Kade had always worked the ranch along with his brothers, but now he initiated new ideas and made it his business to take the ranch into the future. So he went from paid manager of the farm to part owner. He never wanted to fail his father or ruin a highly successful business. So if continued success meant working right along with their forty ranch hands from dawn to dusk, then Kade was more than willing to do it. Besides, he always had been a hands-on type of man. Sitting in an office, making sure he didn't get dirt under his nails, wasn't his thing.
Nude, he strode into the adjoining bath of his bedroom and relieved himself, with a long sigh. After flushing the commode, he stretched before he started the shower. He looked down at the sink. One washcloth. One towel. One toothbrush. One rinse cup. One of everything in his life. Constant reminders that he was alone now.
It had been close to three years since his wife, Reema, had passed away. Years that seemed like forever without her.
That's why he hated to be in bed alone. A pillow to hold at night was a poor substitute for spooning his wife. Holding her. Smelling the scent of her hair and her neck. Teasing her nipples in the last moments before he dozed off. Her hand reaching back to lightly rest on his thigh. Their innocent embrace suddenly turning to hot caresses and the most passionate lovemaking ever. The unique scent of their sex. Intimacy. Affection. Love.
Sighing, he stepped inside the shower, pulling the curtain closed as the steam surrounded his body. As he began to lather his washcloth, his elbow slammed against the tiled wall. He winced and swore. The dimensions of the bathtub left a lot to be desired for a man of his size. Six foot five and 225 pounds, Kade was solid and strong. Trying to shower-or God help him-bathe in a bathroom fit for someone under six feet was more injurious to his body than working the ranch.
For a second, as he dragged the soapy cloth across his ridged abdomen, he thought of the master suite at his own house. Reema had made sure everything had been custom built to fit him. The high ceilings. The extra long bed. The oversized Jacuzzi tub. The tiled shower big enough for him to spin in.
The night before Reema died had been his last night in that house. He hadn't been back since. He hadn't wanted to return.
Kade finished his shower and rushed to get dressed in one of the nearly thirty Dickies uniforms in the closet. As soon as he pulled on his Tims, he left the room and walked across the hall to look in on his seven-year-old daughter, Kadina. Even though he knew she was sleeping, because of the predawn hour, every workday he liked to look in on her before he went out to work the ranch.
She was the only thing that had kept him sane in the first few months after Reema's death. He had had to at least pretend to be strong for his child. Strong. Humph, sometimes he had found it so hard to live up to his name.
Kade shut her bedroom door and jogged down the stairs. The scent of coffee hit him before he even reached the bottom step. Ever since he was a little boy, his mother had gotten up with his father, made him a cup of coffee, and fixed his breakfast before he left to work the ranch every day. Thirty years later, the tradition lived on.
At the sight of his parents, Kade came to a halt just before stepping into the kitchen. His father, Kael, was sliding his hand under his mother's knee-length gown. It was not exactly the warm family scene Kade wanted to be a part of.
Kade backtracked and headed down the hall to the front door. As badly as he craved his morning cup of coffee, he wanted to respect his parent's privacy. He lived with them, and he didn't want to be an intrusion.
Kade jogged down the stairs and climbed into his Ford Expedition. Although he had every intention of heading toward the rear of the ranch, he followed an instinct and, instead, steered his vehicle down the winding road leading to the main highway, in the direction of Summerville, South Carolina. His heart raced a bit as he eventually made the turn off of Highway 17. His grip on the wheel tightened. His body jostled as he drove down the dirt road, swerving around crater-sized potholes.
Set back in the center of three acres of land was the house. His house. He climbed out of the SUV, with his eyes fixed on the two-level brick structure of over three thousand square feet. With the Strong Ranch hands keeping up the maintenance of the land as he requested, it appeared to be a warm home awaiting the return of the family, but that house had not been a home for years.
Kade slid his large hands into the pockets of his navy Dickies pants. The silver curls of his prematurely gray hair glistened in the rising sun. Memories unfolded before him like a movie, causing a soft smile to play at his supple lips.
Kade climbed the steps, with his keys in hand, but the front door swung open before he reached the top step. He was surrounded by the sweet and subtle scent of his wife's perfume just before she leaned her tall, full, and curvaceous figure against the door frame, with a welcoming smile filled with the love he knew she had for him.
He paused for a second at the top step as his love-that deep, lasting, one-of-a-kind love-filled his chest. Reema was his wife, his friend, his lover, the mother of his child, the keeper of his secrets, and the believer in his dreams. He couldn't imagine his life without her.
"Hey, you," he greeted her as his smile broadened and his bottomless dimples deepened. It was their first night in their new home. The first of many more to come.
Reema flung her braids over her shoulders as she stepped forward to press her hands against his broad chest and her lips to his. "Welcome home, baby," she said softly against his mouth.
Their eyes locked as Kade pressed his hands against her hips and deepened the kiss.
"Kadina's upstairs napping. Dinner's in the oven keeping warm...."
Kade grinned wolfishly as he bent slightly to swing her ample, curvaceous body up into his strong arms with well-practiced ease. He stepped inside the house and used his foot to kick the front door closed behind them.
The image faded, and Kade swallowed a lump in his throat. He literally shook away the sadness as a tear raced down his cheek. He released a heavy breath and wiped his face.
He leaned back against the SUV and looked up. Everything was calm and serene. He used to love this time of the day. Every morning, before he left their home, Reema would rise with him, just like his mother did for his father. She would fix breakfast, and they would sit on the patio outside the kitchen and watch the sun rise.
It had been so long since he'd let himself enjoy something so simple yet so beautiful. He missed this. He missed a lot of things. His wife. His home. His bed. His privacy. His life.
Kahron Strong sped up Highway 17, heading back from Charleston. He had just made a run to Lowe's for supplies and was anxious to get back to his ranch. Cattle that he purchased at the livestock auction last week were being delivered today, and he was anxious not to miss it. His masculine hands drummed the steering wheel as he listened to "Don't Matter" by Akon, playing on his satellite radio. He was singing along off-key as he looked out at the stretches of emerald green trees and grass lining the highway.
He smiled as he thought of his wife, Bianca. She was a tall, fair-skinned beauty with luscious lips he could suckle forever. She was everything he never knew he wanted. Everything.
The wide screen of his BlackBerry lit up where it sat on the passenger seat of his truck. He quickly turned down the volume of the radio and reached for it. His heart skipped a beat.
"Hey, you," he said, his voice filled with warmth, pleasure, and love.
"Hey, you," Bianca said in return, her voice husky with sleep and emotion. "I wanted to see you before you left the house this morning."
"I didn't want to wake you, since you got in so late last night," he said, placing his signature rimless aviator shades atop his silver faded head as he steered the vehicle easily with one hand.
"And because I came in so late, I had something I wanted to give you this morning."
Kahron's smile broadened at the obvious sexy intent in his wife's voice. He loved and adored the woman. His woman.
When he first saw Bianca King driving her flashy convertible as her riot of curls blew in the wind, he never imagined the mysterious woman would later become the love of his life. She was the one person that knew him better than anyone else.
His eyes shifted to the digital clock on the dash. "I'll be home in ten minutes."
"I'll be waiting."
Kahron felt anticipation fill him as he ended the call and propelled the vehicle forward. Bianca was not only an equine veterinarian servicing the local farms in the area, but also co-owner and operator of King Equine Services, and her time had been stretched thin lately. They had to make time for each other. Since they were used to making love once daily-if not more-they had some making up to do for the last few weeks of their marriage.
Kahron's head swung toward Kade's house as he passed it. He did a double take before quickly pulling his SUV off the paved road and slamming on his brakes. Dirt and pebbles flew up around him. Quickly, he checked for traffic in his mirror before he did an illegal U-turn. He squinted his eyes as he turned left onto the unpaved road leading to Kade's home.
His heart literally ached to see his older brother obviously struggling to enter the house. It was well known that Kade had not been at the house since the night before his wife passed. Kahron wanted to go to him, help him through such an obvious big step in his life, but another part of him knew Kade wanted to do it alone.
Kahron released a heavy and expectant breath as his brother's tall frame finally disappeared through the front door. He snatched up his BlackBerry and quickly dialed the number even as he climbed out of the SUV. "Hey, I need everyone to get over to Kade's ASAP."
Kade was lost in memories he had pushed away and protected from his grief. As he drifted slowly through the house, each room shook some buried emotion from him. Each brought some seemingly insignificant moment in time to the forefront.
He paused in each room as his life played out before him like a movie. Late nights in the den, cuddled with Reema on the couch, watching movies. Coming home late from work and sitting in the nursery to just hold Kadina as she slept. Waking up every morning to that poster-sized photo of them smiling on their wedding day.
His emotions ran the gamut and left him shaky.
In his bedroom, Kade sunk down at the foot of the bed and looked up at the photo as he locked his fingers between his knees. He felt spent. He felt weak. Drained. Depleted. Lost. Incomplete. But for the first time in years, he also felt hope, peace, and confidence that he was ready for the future. As one lone tear raced down his cheek, he stood and walked out of the house, knowing it was time to move on with life.
Kade paused as he stepped out onto the porch. Surprise filled his handsome face, and he quickly wiped the moisture from high cheekbones. His deep-set eyes took in each compassion-filled face of his family as they stood at the base of the steps. His parents, Kael and Lisha Strong. Kaleb, Kaeden, Kaitlyn, and Kahron and Bianca. Somehow he wasn't at all surprised to see them there. Not at all.
"You okay, son?" Kael called out in that deep baritone voice of his as he hugged his wife close to his side.
Kade nodded as he descended the few steps into their midst. "I'm good. In fact, I'm better than I've been in a long time."
Kaitlyn stepped forward and wrapped her arm around his waist. "What's going on?" she asked, bumping her hip against his side.
He lifted his hand to muss her short crop of dyed jet-black hair. "I've decided that Kadina and I are going to move back into the house," he told them, playfully looking down at his palm for dye before he wiped his hand on his pants leg. The brothers all loved teasing their baby sister about dyeing the grey out of her hair.
Kaitlyn just gave him a saucy eye roll.
Even as his brothers all stepped forward to either hug him close or clap him soundly on the back, and his sister and sister-in-law kissed his cheek, he saw the immediate concern on his mother's face. Kade moved through the small group and pulled her into a tight embrace.
He smiled at the way her head barely reached his chest. "We'll be fine, Ma," he assured her as she squeezed him tightly.
"Did we say or do something?" she asked, tilting her head back to look up at him. "You know how much I love having Kadina and you around the house."
"It's just time. That's all," replied Kade. "That's the only reason."
Her eyes searched his for a few moments before she hugged him one last time and nodded her head in understanding. Then she stepped back from him.
Kaeden stepped forward to playfully punch Kade's arm. "My big brother just wants to get back to normal, right?"
Kade nodded. "Right," he agreed. "Now I want to say ... especially while you're all here," Kade continued, giving each of his brothers a long and meaningful stare. "I'm not ready for this to become a bachelor pad, with women coming in and out of here quicker than cars at a drive-thru window."
Each of the brothers nodded in understanding, and Kade hoped they truly did understand. His eyes took in that comfortable and loving way Bianca massaged his brother's back, and he glanced away. He hated to admit to the jealousy he felt about their intimacy.
"Well, who's gonna help you with Kadina?" Lisha asked. "Getting her ready for school when you're already up and at the ranch. Her hair. Her meals."
Bianca pulled a rubber band from the back pocket of her jeans and gathered her hair into a ponytail. "I agree, Kade. You're going to need help. So much of your time is wrapped up in the ranch."
Kade held up his hand before his mother could even let the offer flow from her lips. "Thanks, Ma, but no thanks. Dad has just about retired, and it's time you do the same. You two should buy that camper and travel, the way you always said you would."
"He can hire a nanny," Kaeden offered.
"Oh God, and wind up on the six o'clock news, with all the weirdos in the world today?" Lisha retorted.
"Yes, make me have to catch a case, Kade," Kaitlyn added.
"I'm not saying go find any jackrabbit on the street," Kaeden countered. "There are many reputable agencies that thoroughly screen their employees."
"Oh, like the Catholic Church?" Kaitlyn flung back.
Kade released a heavy breath as nearly his entire family began a full-blown debate on the pros and cons of hiring a nanny. He loved his family. He cherished them, but ... they could be overwhelming at times.
He slid his hands into the pockets of his Dickies and shook his head a bit as he looked heavenward and licked his lips.
"I have just the solution for you, brother-in-law," said Bianca.
Kade lowered his eyes and then looked into Bianca's smiling face. "Give it to me, sister-in-law."
"Garcelle," she said simply, with a subtle lift of her rounded shoulders.
"Garcelle?" asked Kade.
"Garcelle," she said again, with finality.
Kade squinted his eyes as he thought of Garcelle.
Having worked the last year couple of years as Kahron and Bianca's part-time cook and housekeeper, Garcelle Santos had already proven herself to be trustworthy and loyal. She was the daughter of Kahron's foreman-someone else who had proven to be a valuable asset to his brother's business. And although Kade had treated the woman with suspicion and some disdain during their first meeting, he had come to see just how very wrong he was.
Kadina already loved Garcelle. Everyone did. She was more of a family friend than an employee. She was perfect for Kadina.
Kade nodded. "Garcelle," he stated, with equal finality.
Excerpted from HOT LIKE FIRE by NIOBIA BRYANT Copyright © 2007 by Niobia Bryant. Excerpted by permission.
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