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Jade Hamilton was totally lost, in more ways than she could count.
She pulled to the curb and parked her compact car on Main Street in Kerry Springs, Texas. The traffic was nearly nonexistent. Well, what did she expect? The population was under twenty thousand. Talk about your small town. Of course she knew that when she'd done her research on the area.
She blew out a breath. This was one of those crossroad moments her friend, fellow nurse, Carrie Bradley, had always talked about. Either she needed to get directions to the job interview, or forget this crazy idea and turn around and head back to Dallas.
Then she'd never learn the truth. She had to know the truth.
Sadness crept over her, thinking about the past few months. Jade hated the resentment she felt for the woman who'd raised her, yet they'd kept so many secrets. Now Renee Hamilton was gone and she couldn't tell Jade anything. Anything about the information Jade had found in the safedeposit box that would change her life forever.
It was time she find out the entire truth. For her own satisfaction she needed answers. First, she had to find River's End Ranch.
With renewed determination, she climbed out of the car and looked along the street to see a hardware store, a drugstore and ice cream store. Then a storefront with a display of handmade quilts caught her eye. The name Blind Stitch Quilt Shop was embossed across the glass window. She smiled, remembering her childhood and the hours she'd spent learning how to stitch with her mother.
Jade walked to the entrance, opened the door as a bell rang overhead. Inside the cool air mingled with the chatter of several women gathered around a cutting table. The salesclerk seemed to be busy so, having plenty of time before her appointment, Jade took the opportunity to look around the quaint shop. Several beautiful quilts adorned the high walls, underneath were stacks of pattern books and displays of scissors, needles and other notices. She strolled through the bolts of colorful fabric into a connecting room where another group of ladies were gathered around a table. She was surprised to see there was a man who was the center of attention.
Jade enjoyed a leisurely gaze over the handsome guy. He held his Stetson in his hand so she could see his inkyblack hair and dark, deepset eyes. She recognized more than a hint of Hispanic heritage in his strong jawline.
He was dressed in a starched creamcolored Western shirt, and newlooking pair of jeans, but he had on boots that were wellworn. She glanced down at his hands, and could see bluntcut nails, also the callused fingers. He was definitely a working cowboy.
In a quilt shop?
"He's pretty easy on the eyes, huh?"
Jade swung around and found a pretty blonde about her age, smiling at her.
"I'm sorry," Jade admitted. "It's rude to stare."
"It's hard not to," the woman said. "There are some goodlooking men around Kerry Springs. I can say that since I've recently married the most handsome one, Evan Rafferty. Hi, I'm Jenny Rafferty."
"Jade Hamilton," she said, smiling.
"Welcome, Jade, to the Blind Stitch. What can I do for you? Sign you up for my quilting class, or " She grinned, and then said, "Maybe introduce you to that goodlooking cowboy."
Jade shook her head. She couldn't get distracted from her goal. "Oh, no. I'm sorry, but I only came in to get directions."
"So are you looking for a place to live?"
Jade found herself relaxing a little. "A job first."
Jenny laughed. "That's always a good idea. Where are you headed? I'm fairly new to the community, but I can give pretty good directions."
"I'm looking for Louisa Merrick at the River's End Ranch."
The store clerk raised an eyebrow. "Really? Louisa is one of our best patrons until recently."
"So you know where the ranch is?"
"Yes, I do." She nodded to the cowboy. "But I think he can do a better job of giving directions. That's Louisa's son, Sloan Merrick."
Jade saw the man had started for the door carrying one of the sample books. "Okay, thank you, Jenny," she called as she hurried across the room, hoping she could follow him out to the ranch.
He'd just gotten out the door when she called to him. "Excuse me, Mr. Merrick."
The man was at his truck. He turned around and was even more handsome close up, and much bigger.
He frowned as he gave her the onceover, causing a funny reaction in her stomach.
He straightened. "What do you want?"
"Huh, well " She was suddenly nervous. "Jenny Rafferty told me that you're Sloan Merrick. I was wondering if I could get directions to the River's End." She forced a smile. "I have an appointment with Louisa Merrick."
He continued to stare, but his eyes narrowed sharply. "The only directions you'll get from me are to tell you how to leave town."
She blinked. "I beg your pardon."
He stepped closer. "How much plainer do you need it, lady? Stay the hell away from Merrick land, you aren't welcome."
An hour later, Jade had found her way out to the ranch. She was still fighting the urge to turn and run as she looked past the high wroughtiron gate toward the huge white house perched on the hill.
Her gaze moved to the miles of splitrail fencing enclosing the many acres of green pastures where Hereford steers grazed on the large southern Texas cattle ranch. She looked up at the archway overhead that read River's End, owned by the Merrick Family, est. 1904.
She blew out a breath to slow her heart rate. It didn't help. Go back to Dallas and forget she'd ever heard the name Merrick. At least one Merrick doesn't want you here.
There was still time to change her mind, to forget this crazy idea. Then she'd never learn the truth about herself.
She pushed the button on the intercom. "Merrick residence," a woman with a heavy accent answered.
Jade swallowed the dryness in her throat. "Hello, I'm Jade Hamilton. I have an appointment with Mrs. Merrick." Her heart pounded hard in her chest. Was she finally going to meet the senator?
"I'll open the gate for you. Drive to the main house."
Jade climbed back into her car and the gate swung open as Sloan Merrick's threat echoed in her head.
"Stay the hell away from Merrick land. You aren't welcome." Maybe she would be, or maybe she wouldn't be, but this was her chance to find out the truth.
She drove through the gate and tried to enjoy the quarter mile trip as she continued along the road and passed several structures, including a large barn and a corral with a number of horses. There were ranch hands busy with chores. A few of them looked at her, but no one stopped her so she kept on going.
The house was more impressive the closer she got. The brick and white clapboard, threestory structure with a big wraparound porch was loaded down with huge pots of flowers adding a rainbow of color. She pulled into the circular driveway.
Grabbing her purse and briefcase she headed up the slate tile walkway to the steps and a massive oak door with a cutglass window. The name Merrick was etched into the center.
Each breath Jade drew was more labored. She'd waited months to come here, to meet the one man linked to the secret of her past. She couldn't lose her nerve.
Sloan Merrick studied his mother seated on the sofa in the sunroom. Even being in her favorite place in the house, she didn't look happy. She'd turned fiftyeight on her last birthday, but the past few months had taken a toll on her.
Since her stroke Louisa Merrick hadn't cared much about her appearance. Her hair hadn't been cut or styled, and even the manicurist had been turned away when she'd come by the house. It was so unlike Mother not to want to see anyone, not friends or family. Even though the doctor felt she could make a full recovery with exercise and therapy, she hadn't put forth much effort. And Sloan was worried about her.
"The women at the shop send their best wishes. Liz, Beth, Millie and Jenny all asked about you."
She looked at him, and then down at items he'd brought her back from The Blind Stitch.
"Liz thought you'd like the new pattern book. She told me to tell you that they hadn't started the quilt yet. They need your help on colors and design."
"That's about all I could do. I'd be useless to them the way I am now."
"That could change," he said, hoping to get a rise out of her.
Bingo. She glared at him. "I know your intentions are good, son. But I'm handling this."
But she wasn't handling it. "Mother, if you'll just let us help you."
"That's the problem, Sloan. Everyone is always helping me. It's time I start doing things on my own."
She waved her good arm. "Or I might as well be an invalid."
He could see her frustration. Hell, he had a big share of his own. Her strong Spanish heritage showed in her distinctive bone structure and coloring, especially her deep brown eyes.
"I know how important your independence is to you."
"Then get ready because I'm planning on getting it back. And soon."
He stared at her, recalling the day she'd collapsed in front of him. Thank God she'd gotten immediate medical attention. And as the wife of a U.S. senator, she'd had the best care. "You haven't gotten all your strength back. There are times when you need someone to help you."
"I agree. That's why I'm planning on hiring someone to help me get back on my feet."
"What? Why didn't you say something? If you needed help we're here."
She shook her head. "No, you, your father and Alisa need to get on with your lives. I wantno, needto do this on my own. Thankfully I still have my faculties. My mind isn't completely gone. That's why I'm hiring a nurse to be with me until I'm back on solid ground, so to speak."
Sloan calmed down a little. Okay, maybe that wasn't such a bad idea. Marta had been overworked with the housework and Mother's demands. "So who did the doctor recommend? "
"He gave me the name of a nurses' registry that specializes in this sort of thing. I've been interviewing several candidates and I found one I like."
Before Sloan could speak there was a knock on the door and the longtime housekeeper, Marta, peered in. "Senorita Hamilton is here."
Louisa smiled. "Good. Send her in, Marta." Then she glanced at him. "Don't you have somewhere to be?"
He folded his arms across his chest, leaned a hip against the desk and looked toward the doorway. "Not hardly."
When the candidate walked into the room, Sloan froze. The woman from town.
She was an attractive female with dark hair cut in a straight style that moved freely just below her chin. She glanced up at him and his breath caught. Those large eyes, a rich green and tilted upward at the corners, had thrown him off guard just an hour ago and were still having the same effect on him now.
He quickly recovered and stood. "You don't seem to take direction well, Ms. Hamilton."
"Maybe because it's Mrs. Merrick who wanted to see me. It seemed right that she should be the one to tell me to leave."
"Wrong," he told her. "Too many people like to take advantage. It's surprising how lucrative a story about the Merricks is, so I'm very protective of my family."
"Sloan. Please, at least let Ms. Hamilton catch her breath before you give her the third degree."
Jade Hamilton walked to the wicker sofa and sat down next to his mother. "Mrs. Merrick, it's so nice to finally meet you. You have a lovely home. It's so bright and sunny in here."
The sunroom had rows of windows that overlooked the rose garden. It also expressed his mother's culture with the handpainted floor tiles and brightly colored walls.
Sloan saw Ms. Hamilton had turned a bright smile at his mother. "It must be a comfort to you to be able to be in familiar surroundings during your recovery."
"It is," Louisa said as her eyes brightened. "I decorated this house, turned it into a home right after Sloan and I moved in." She looked at him. "Remember, son, how the place resembled a museum?"
"Yes, Mother, I do."
"I had my husband add this room. I needed sunlight.and some color."
Sloan cleared his throat. "Maybe we should start the interview."
Ms. Hamilton blinked those gorgeous eyes at him. "I thought your mother already had." She turned back to Louisa. "What questions do you want to ask me, Mrs. Merrick?"
"I think it's time you call me Louisa."
"And I'm Jade."
"What a lovely name. I can see why your mother named you that. Your eyes are striking."
Jade couldn't stop shaking, afraid that any minute they'd discover who she was. "Thank you. My mother told me when she saw their color she couldn't come up with anything else."
Sloan stood. He wasn't going to be taken in by a pretty face again. Not where his mother was concerned.
"Around here we're big on family names," Louisa continued. "My son was christened John Sloan Merrick. Sloan is his biological father's name and then my husband, Clay, adopted him when he was eight."
Sloan crossed the room. "Mother, I don't think we need to go into family history."
"He's right," Jade said, giving him a sideways glance.
"This is an interview. Ask me whatever you want, Mr. Merrick."
"Your last place of employment?"
Jade reached into her oversize purse and pulled out her resume. She handed it to him. "I worked at a small private hospital in Dallas before I took a leave of absence to be with my mother during the last months before she passed away." Jade felt the tears and willed them not to fall. "She had multiple sclerosis for years."
"Oh, I'm sorry." Louisa sighed. "That must have been so hard on you."
Jade didn't expect to feel an instant liking for this woman. That was what made this so hard. "Thank you. My consolation is that I know she's isn't suffering any longer."
"That has to be comforting for you," the older woman said as she took hold of her hand.
Jade saw the woman's honest concern and felt the warmth in her touch. She also had the sudden urge to run out and forget it all, especially with Sloan Merrick watching her so closely. She wanted this job. It would be her best chance to get to see the senator. "Enough about me. What about you, Louisa?"
Sloan started to speak, but his mother sent him a look. He backed off.
Louisa's expression softened as she said, "I want my life back. And I'll do whatever it takes."
Jade found herself smiling. "That's the good news. And as we discussed on the phone, I plan to help you do that. It will also take some hard work and determination on your part."