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Blue River, Texas November
The evil brides were gaining on her, closing the gap.
Paige Remington ran blindly down a dark country road, legs pumping, lungs burning, her heart flailing in her throat. Slender tree branches plucked at her from either side with nimble, spidery fingers, slowing her down, and the ground turned soft under her feet.
She pitched forward onto her hands and knees. Felt pebbles dig into her palms.
Behind her, the brides screeched and cackled in delighted triumph.
"This is only a dream," Paige told herself. "Wake up."
Still, sleep did not release her.
Flurries of silk and lace, glittering with tiny rhinestones and lustrous with the glow of seed pearls, swirled around her. She felt surrounded, almost smothered.
Suddenly furious, the dream-Paige surged to her feet.
If the monsters wanted a fight, then by God, she'd give it to them.
Confronting her pursuers now, staring directly at them, Paige recognized the brides. They were—and at the same time, in that curious way of dreams, were not—her sisters, Libby and Julie.
Wedding veils hid their faces, but she knew them anyway. Libby wore a luscious vintage gown of shimmering ivory, while Julie's dress was ultramodern, a little something she'd picked up on a recent romantic getaway to Paris.
"We just want you to try on your bridesmaid's dress," the pair said in creepy unison. "That's all."
"No," Paige said. "I'm not trying on the damn dress. Leave me alone."
They advanced on her. Garment bags had materialized in their arms.
"But you're our only bridesmaid," the two chorused.
"No!" Paige repeated, trying to retreat but stuck fast.
It was then that a voice penetrated the thick surface of the dream. "Hey," the voice said, low and male and disturbingly familiar. "You okay?"
She felt a hand on her shoulder and woke up with a jolt.
And a faceful of Austin McKettrick.
"It just keeps getting worse," she marveled, gripping the arms of the poolside chair where she'd fallen asleep after a solitary lunch in the ranch-house kitchen.
Austin laughed, drew up a chair himself and eased into it with the care of a man much older than his twenty-eight years. His beard was coming in, buttery-brown, and his hair looked a little shaggy.
It ought to require a license, being that good-looking.
"Gee," he drawled. "Thanks."
It galled Paige that after all this time, he could still make her heart flutter. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
Austin settled back, popping the top on a beer can, letting her know he meant to take his sweet time answering. A scruffy-looking dog meandered in and settled at his booted feet with a little huff of contented resignation.
"I reckon if anybody's going to demand explanations around here," Austin said at long last, "it ought to be me. I live here, Paige."
She'd set herself up for that one. Even seen it coming. And she'd been unable to get out of the way.
Paige drew a deep breath, released it slowly. "I've been staying in the guest suite for a couple of days," she said after a few moments. "The lease was up on my apartment and the renovations on our old house aren't quite finished, so—"
Austin's eyes were a lethal shade of blue—"heirloom" blue, as Paige thought of it, a mixture of new denim and summer sky and every hue in between. According to local legend, the McKettricks had been passing that eye color down for generations.
He studied her for a long time before speaking again. Set the beer aside without taking a sip. "My brothers," he said, "are marrying your sisters."
Paige sighed. "So I've heard," she said.
Austin ignored the slightly snippy response, went on as if she hadn't said anything. "That means," he told her, "that you and I are going to have to learn to be civil to each other. In spite of our history."
Paige recalled some of that history—youthful, frenzied lovemaking upstairs in Austin's boyhood bedroom, the two of them dancing under the stars to music spilling from the radio in his relic of a truck.
And the fights. She closed her eyes, remembering the fights, and her cheeks burned pink.
She glared at him.
"Is it a deal?" he asked quietly.
"Is what a deal?" she snapped.
Austin sighed, shoved a hand through his hair. He looked thinner than the last time she'd seen him, and shadows moved behind the light in his eyes. If she hadn't known better, she would have thought he was in pain— maybe physical, maybe emotional. Maybe both.
He leaned toward her, spoke very slowly and very clearly, as though addressing a foreigner with language challenges. "Whether we like it or not, we're going to be kin, you and me, once New Year's rolls around. My guess is, my brothers and your sisters will still be married at the crack of doom. There'll be a whole lot of Christmases and Thanksgivings and birthday parties to get through, over the years. All of which means—"
"I know what it means," Paige broke in. "And what's with the condescending tone of voice?"
Austin raised both eyebrows. A grin quirked at one corner of his mouth but never quite kicked in. "What's with the bitchy attitude? " he countered. Then he snapped the fingers of his right hand. "Oh, that's right. It's just your normal personality."
Paige rode out another surge of irritation. Much as she hated to admit it, Austin had a point.
Libby was marrying Tate. Julie was marrying Garrett. Tate's twins, Audrey and Ava, were already part of the family, of course, and so was Julie's little boy, Calvin.
And both couples wanted more kids, right away. Oh, yes, there would be a lot of birthday parties to attend.
"Could we try this again?" Paige asked, trying to sound unruffled.
Austin tented his fingers under his chin and watched her with an expression of solemn merriment that was all his own. "Sure," he replied, all fake generosity and ironic goodwill. "Go ahead and say something friendly—you can do it. Just pretend I'm a human being."
Paige looked away, and a deep and inexplicable sadness swept over her. "We're never going to get anywhere at this rate," she said.
Time seemed to freeze for an instant, then grind into motion again, gears catching on rusty gears.
And then Austin leaned forward, took a light grip on her hand, ran the pad of his thumb over her knuckles.
A hot shiver went through her; he might have been touching her in all those secret, intimate places no one else had found.
"You're right," Austin said, his tone husky. "We're not. Let's give it a shot, Paige—getting along, I mean."
He looked sincere. He sounded sincere.
Watch out, Paige reminded herself silently. "Okay," she said with dignity.
Another silence followed. Paige, for her part, was trying to imagine what a truce between herself and Austin would actually look like. After all, they'd been at odds since that summer night, soon after they'd both graduated from high school, when Paige had caught the lying, sneaking, no-good bastard—
She drew another deep breath, mentally untangled herself from the past. As best she could.
They'd gotten together by accident, in the beginning—
Tate and Libby were going to a movie one Friday night, and, grudgingly, Tate had brought his younger brother along. Paige had gotten the impression that their parents had insisted, and if Tate had refused, it would have been a deal breaker.
Paige had been curled up in an armchair reading a book when Austin turned that fabled charm on her, grinned and asked if she'd like to go to a movie.
After that, she and Austin had been as inseparable as Libby and Tate.
Paige had thought he was playing some game at first, but after a few months, they were a couple. After a year, Paige was on the pill, and they were making love.
Yes, she'd been in love with Austin. She'd lost—okay, given—her virginity to him, along with her trust and, of course, her heart.
Ultimately, he'd betrayed her.
But all that had happened just over ten years ago, before his folks, Jim and Sally McKettrick, were killed in that awful car accident, before her own dad had died of cancer. So very much had happened in the interim and, well, Paige was tired of holding a grudge.
"You were having a bad dream before?" Austin asked presently.
"Huh?" Paige said.
"When I woke you up a little while ago?"
"Yes," she answered, smiling a little. "Thanks for that."
He grinned, making the pit of her stomach quiver for a moment, then reached for his can of beer. Raised it slightly in an offhand toast. "Anytime," he said.
The dog whimpered, chasing something in his sleep. Or running away from something.
"Shep," Austin said, nudging the animal gently with the toe of one boot. "Easy, now. You're all right."
Paige looked down at Shep. "A stray?"
Austin grinned again. This time, there was no smartass edge to his tone. "What gave him away? The matted coat? The dirt, maybe?"
"The poor thing could use a bath," Paige admitted. She'd always had a soft spot for animals—especially the abused, neglected and unwanted ones.
"Garrett promised to hose him down before supper," Austin said. The way he spoke, it was no big deal.
Paige met his gaze, puzzled and not a little annoyed. "Supper's a ways off," she pointed out.
"He'll keep," Austin told her. "Won't you, Shep?"
Paige glanced at her watch. She still had more than an hour before she was due to pick Calvin up in town, at day care. Although she was a nurse by profession, she was between jobs at the moment, as well as between homes. Since Julie was practically meeting herself coming and going these days, between getting ready for the big wedding, holding down her teaching job at the high school and directing the student musical production, Paige had been looking after her nephew a lot lately.
Since she adored Calvin, it was no hardship.
She stood. "I'll do it," she said.
"Do what?" Austin asked.
"Bathe the dog," Paige answered, proud of herself for not adding, since you can't be bothered to do the job yourself.
"I told you," Austin said, frowning. "Garrett will take care of Shep when he gets home."
"No sense in putting it off," Paige said, feeling sorry for the critter.
Shep hauled himself to his feet, watching her with a combination of wariness and hope. His tail swished tentatively to one side, then the other.
And Paige's heart warmed and softened, like so much beeswax.
She crouched, looked straight into the dog's limpid brown eyes.
"I wouldn't hurt you," she said very gently. "Not for the world."
Shep wagged again, this time with more trust, more spirit.
"Paige," Austin interjected cautiously, "he's sort of wild and he probably hasn't had his shots—"
Paige put out a hand, let Shep sniff her fingers and palm and wrist.
She felt something akin to exultation when he didn't retreat. "Nonsense," she said. "He's a sweetheart. Aren't you, Shep?"
She straightened, saw that Austin was standing, too. If it hadn't been for the dog, the man would practically have been on top of her. So to speak.
Heat pulsed in her cheeks.
Something mischievous and far too knowing danced in Austin's eyes. He folded his arms and tilted his head to one side, watching her. She had no clue what he was thinking, and that was even more unsettling.
In order to break the spell, Paige turned and headed for the main part of the house, moving resolutely.
She felt a little zing of triumph when she glanced back and saw the dog hesitate, then fall into step behind her.
Austin couldn't really blame the dog for trailing after Paige—watching that perfect blue-jeaned backside of hers as she walked away left him with little choice but to do likewise. Still, it stung his pride that Shep hadn't waited for him.
Whose dog was he, anyhow?
Paige's apparently. She led the way, like some piper in a fairy tale, with Shep padding right along in her wake, and that was how the three of them ended up in the laundry room, off the kitchen.
Paige knew her way around—she rustled up some old towels and the special mutt shampoo Julie kept around for Harry—and started the water running in one of the big sinks. She spooled out the hand-sprayer and pressed the squirter with a practiced thumb, testing the temperature against the underside of her left wrist.
The sight, ordinary as it was, did something peculiar to Austin.
"Well," Paige said, dropping her gaze to the dog and then letting it fly back to Austin's face, "don't just stand there. Hoist Shep up into the sink so I can wash him." She smiled at Shep. "You're going to feel so much better, once you've had your bath," she assured the critter.
Austin had his pride. He wasn't about to tell this woman that he'd blown out his back and couldn't risk lifting one skinny dog off the floor because he might wind up in traction or something.
He leaned down and carefully looped his arms under Shep's belly. Set him gently in the laundry sink.
Paige introduced Shep to the sprayer with a few little blasts of warm water, and gave him time to sort out how he felt about the experience.
Austin, meanwhile, was just about to congratulate himself on getting away with lifting the dog when he felt a stabbing ache in the same part of his back as when he'd had to be half carried out of Pinky's bar last month. He drew in a sharp breath and grasped the edge of the long counter, where the housekeeper, Esperanza, usually folded sheets and towels.
Steady, he thought. Wait it out.
Paige, preoccupied with sluicing down the dog and apparently oblivious to the way the water was soaking the front of her skimpy T-shirt, paid Austin no attention at all. And that was fine by him, mostly.
The spasm in Austin's back intensified, a giant charley horse that he couldn't walk off like one in his calf or the arch of his foot. He bit down hard on his lower lip and shut his eyes.
"Austin?" Paige's voice had changed. It was soft, worried-sounding. "Is something wrong? You're sort of pale and—"
Austin shook his head. The spasm was beginning to subside, though it still hurt like holy-be-Jesus, but talking was beyond him.
He wouldn't risk meeting her gaze. Back when they were just kids and hot and heavy into dating, Paige had shown a disturbing ability to read his mind—not to mention his soul—through his eyes.
Not that she'd been infallible in that regard.
Or maybe, when it really counted, she'd been too mad to look long enough, hard enough.
"I'm—fine," he finally said. The pain was letting up.
Paige reached for the dog shampoo, squeezed a glistening trail of it down Shep's sodden back and began to suds him up.
"Excuse me," she said matter-of-factly, "but you don't look fine."