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The trouble with living a lie, Niki discovered three months later, wasn't that you might get caught. It was that, eventually, you wanted it to be true. And that moment came when Sawyer Smith arrived at her half brother's newly framed ranch house.
Late-afternoon sun rays slanted through the empty window openings, turning the dust flecks to sparkles, and highlighting planes and angles of Sawyer's striking face. He was neater than most cowboys, clean shaven, hair trimmed short. But his stance was easy, shoulders square, hands wide and capable.
Niki was crouched on the rough plywood floor of the kitchen, power drill in her hand. She was putting holes in the two-by-fours in preparation for running the electrical cables. Her jeans were dirty, the heels of her palms scratched and red. She had sawdust in her hair, and her serviceable, green T-shirt was streaked with sweat.
"I took possession of the Raklin place yesterday." Sawyer spoke to her half-brother Reed, his deep voice carrying across the open rooms.
Niki watched covertly between the studs of the skeleton walls. Reed was an imposing figure, broad shouldered, heavily muscled, at a height of six-feet four. But Sawyer held his own. He was a little shorter, a little leaner, obviously athletic. And he was cover-model sexy, with the most startling, deep blue eyes she'd ever seen.
"Welcome to Lyndon Valley," Reed responded, reaching out to shake Sawyer's hand.
Sawyer's gaze met Niki's, and she quickly refocused on her work, embarrassed to be caught checking him out. She revved up the drill and lined up for the next spot that had been marked by the electrician. She eased the bit through the fibrous wood, her arm vibrating all the way to her shoulder.
Up to now, she would have sworn she was only attracted to the urbane, classy type. But, apparently she'd reassessed. At some point, after her life had taken a one-eighty, forcing her to flee Washington, D.C., for the wilds of Colorado cattle country, cowboys must have started to look good.
Not that it mattered. Nobody was going to be remotely interested in her while she looked like this.
When she'd lived in D.C., her hair had been long, wavy blond, always cleanly cut and highlighted to perfection. She'd never left the penthouse without her contacts, perfect makeup, fine jewelry and designer shoes. She preferred cultured entertainment and five-star restaurants. Her mother had taught her that if a man didn't own a Mercedes or a Jaguar, he might as well ride a bicycle.
But that had been Niki Gerard. Here in Lyndon Valley, she was Nellie Cooper, innocuous half sister of Reed and Caleb Terrell. Her hair was cut short and dyed brown. Her sensible glasses were perched on a sunburned, slightly freckled nose. She hadn't worn makeup in weeks, and her blue jeans had cost twenty-five dollars down at the Lyndon City Co-op.
Nobody from her old life would ever recognize her. But then that was the point.
"Hey, Nellie," Reed called from the entry hall, his deep voice booming above the high pitch of her drill.
She released the trigger, and the motor whined to a stop as she glanced up.
"Come meet our new neighbor."
Niki hauled herself to her feet, conscious of her sweaty, dusty appearance, telling herself that it didn't matter. She was working on a construction site, not waltzing into the ballroom of the St. Regis. Sawyer seemed to scrutinize her as she approached, and she couldn't help but wonder what stood out for him. The dirt? The sweat? The glasses? The plain-Jane hair?
"This is my sister," Reed introduced, motioning her farther forward.
Though they'd met for the first time three months ago, Reed never referred to her as his half sister. Neither did his fraternal twin Caleb. From the moment the DNA tests had come back positive, Niki had been welcomed into the Terrell family with open arms. Her newfound brothers had turned out to be solid, smart, dependable men. And with every day that went by, she regretted her lies to them more and more.
She wiped her hands across the front of her jeans as she stepped her way around a pair of sawhorses and over an air-compressor line. "Hello," she greeted Sawyer, swallowing the hormonal reaction that grew more intense as she neared.
He gave her a brief nod of acknowledgment. There was some kind of a question lurking deep in his blue eyes, but it quickly disappeared, and his expression smoothed out.
"Sawyer Smith," he intoned in a pleasantly mellow voice, holding out his hand.
"Nellie Cooper," she returned, her own voice slightly breathless as his hand closed over hers.
His was warm, strong and commanding, sending pulses of awareness skittering along her nervous system.
"I just bought the Raklin place across the highway," he told her.
"Welcome," she managed, wishing the odd sensation would stop, wondering if he could feel it, too. "You lived here long?" he asked.
"Born and raised," Reed responded. "From our three times great-grandparents on down."
Sawyer released Niki's hand, and she glanced over to Reed in surprise. She knew the ranch had been in the Terrell family for generations, but she hadn't realized just how long they'd lived in the Lyndon Valley.
"That's impressive," Sawyer told him.
"What about you?" Reed asked. "Are you from Colorado?"
"Montana originally." Sawyer shifted his stance. "Spent a little time in the military after college. I guess I'm coming back to my roots."
"Good roots to come back to," said Reed as his cell phone chimed. "Excuse me." He drew the phone from his pocket and raised it to his ear, listening for a second, a smile growing on his face. "Hey, sweetheart."
Niki knew it had to be his wife, Katrina.
Though it didn't seem to happen often, because each of the brothers had other homes out of the state, both Reed and Caleb were on the Lyndon Valley ranch this week.
Reed and his wife, Katrina, spent much of their time in New York City, because Katrina was a professional ballerina. Caleb's wife, Mandy, had grown up on the neighboring Jacobs spread, but Caleb had spent years in Chicago building Active Equipment, his heavy-equipment manufacturing business. He and Mandy now spent about half their time in Chicago, half in Lyndon Valley.
"Starving," Reed said into the phone, and he grinned at Niki.
She tried to pretend she didn't notice Sawyer studying her. She'd attracted her fair share of male attention in D.C., particularly if she was wearing something by Delwanna, and always when she was wearing her black Magnamis heels. But she couldn't imagine she was anywhere even approaching attractive at the moment. She hoped she didn't have dirt smeared across her cheek or something equally gauche.
Sawyer's black jeans were spotless, his boots polished to a shine. He wore a white, Western-cut shirt with black piping and black buttons, and his curved-brim Stetson was worn enough to look natural, but new enough to complement the outfit.
Unable to stop herself, she reached up and casually brushed the back of her hand across each cheek. A breeze rustled through the windows, bringing the scent of wild clover. A diesel engine fell silent outside, and a horse whinnied in the distance, blending with the gurgle of the nearby creek.
Reed pocketed his phone. "Katrina's on her way with the barbecue fixin's. My wife," he explained to Sawyer. "Care to stick around for a burger?"
Sawyer gave an easy nod of acceptance. "Appreciate the offer." He unbuttoned one of his shirt cuffs. "In the meantime, can I lend a hand?" He rolled up a sleeve, revealing a ropy, muscular forearm.
The man was obviously used to hard work.
"There's plenty to do," Reed responded. "There's a crew unloading lumber around the back."
Sawyer finished rolling up his other sleeve and tipped his hat back on his head. "Then I'll get right on it." His gaze returned to Niki. "Pleasure, ma'am."
He exited and disappeared around the sheeted, exterior wall.
Reed moved closer to Niki. "You got pretty quiet there, Nellie. Something about that man get to you?"
"I'm shy," she responded, telling herself Reed couldn't read her mind. He had no way of knowing she found Sawyer unaccountably attractive.
But Reed barked out a laugh. "That's your story?"
She shot him a mock, arched glare, intending to show him she didn't mind being teased. "And I'm stickin' to it."
But even as she uttered the cavalier words, she struggled to shake off her embarrassment. She couldn't help but worry she'd looked pathetic panting after a man like Sawyer.
Though Reed's wife was a Colorado native, Katrina had spent most of her life in New York. She was unfailingly gorgeous and glamorous. Caleb's wife, Mandy, was so healthy and beautiful that she looked spectacular in anything she threw on, including worn jeans and plaid shirts.
But Nellie Cooper didn't have a lot going for her. When she'd been Niki Gerard she'd had plenty of money and time to make the most of her looks. But when you took away all the trimmings, there wasn't a whole lot left.
Being plain Jane wasn't much fun. But Nellie Cooper was just going to have to suck it up. Because she sure couldn't afford to have anyone make the connection between her and Niki Gerard.
Sawyer Layton couldn't believe he'd finally found Niki Gerard. To say she looked nothing like her photo was a colossal understatement. He doubted he could have picked her out of a police lineup.
Coming around back of the half-built house, he found a flat-bed truck loaded with lumber. He greeted a trio of men who were unloading, located a spare pair of leather gloves then joined them in their work, while his mind mulled over the latest turn of events.
Niki was calling herself Nellie now. He wasn't surprised that she'd changed her name. But he couldn't help wonder how she'd convinced the Terrells she was their sister.
It was a clever enough plan, hiding out at a ranch in the middle of the Colorado wilderness. Convincing a well-established family to take her to their bosom was pure genius. From the perspective of ingenuity and sheer audacity, Niki was clearly Gabriella Gerard's daughter.
His first load was three sheets of plywood. He balanced them against one shoulder as he followed a short path to the growing stack beside the house. He then turned for another load, settling into an easy rhythm.
Like Niki, Sawyer was operating under a false identity. But he hadn't lied about buying the neighboring ranch. And he hadn't lied about being from Montana. He'd been born there. A technicality, because his parents, D.C. residents, happened to be vacationing on the family's Montana ranch when his mother went into early labor. Still, over the years, he'd spent quite a few vacations at the ranch, learning how to work outdoors and picking up the rudiments of cattle ranching.
Sawyer had grown up in D.C., along with a brother, a sister and countless cousins in the Layton clan. His brother had become a lawyer, specializing in taxation, and joined the family firm. His sister was engaged to Miles Carter, a young Congressman from Delaware. Meanwhile Sawyer had graduated college with a degree in international affairs and joined the navy as an officer. He'd liked the discipline and camaraderie of the navy. He'd also appreciated the black and white codes of ethics and conduct.
Sawyer lifted another three sheets of lumber. He was starting to perspire under the late-day August sun.
Unfortunately, his extended family had missed him while he was away. They'd missed his ingenuity, his nerve and his rather eclectic skill set. Since the Laytons had always been much better at getting themselves into trouble than getting themselves out, Sawyer had given up the black and white moral code of the navy for the countless shades of D.C. gray.
He'd gone back to work as the family fixer. Over the past few years, he'd done everything from misdirecting the press, to quietly paying off gambling debts and secretly locking extended family members in highend rehab centers. But nothing compared to the latest trouble with Gabriella Gerard. When she had died, and then Niki disappeared, Sawyer's uncle, the senator had gone into full-blown panic mode.
Uncle Charles, along with many other power brokers in D.C., had a lot to lose if Gabriella's infamous diary saw the light of day. If that happened, the whole world would know Charles had cheated on his wife and, albeit unknowingly, accepted illegal campaign contributions.
Everyone knew that Niki had the diary. And now Sawyer had Niki.
"My brother tells me you're new to the neighborhood." A tall, dark haired man fell into step beside Sawyer.
Sawyer dropped his latest load down on the growing stack. "Sawyer Smith." He pulled off a glove to shake the man's hand.
"Nice place you've got here," Sawyer complimented, gazing around at the lush meadows, rolling hills and the Lyndon River winding its way into the lake below. Befriending the Terrells was an integral part of his plan. He couldn't let Niki or anyone else be remotely suspicious of his reasons for being here. Luckily, Sawyer had enough money to temporarily buy a cattle ranch.
"We like it," Caleb responded, pride clear in his tone. "The main house is south along the river. But Reed's been planning this place for years."
As they spoke, Reed made an appearance in the front yard, joking with the men who were setting up a gas barbecue. He wrapped one arm around a petite blonde woman and gave her a kiss.
"His wife?" Sawyer asked Caleb.
"Do they have enough kids to fill up this big house?" Sawyer asked in an effort to keep Caleb engaged in conversation.
"Not yet. Katrina's a professional ballerina, so it may be a while before they start a family."
From his research, Sawyer knew all about Katrina. Ironically, he'd seen her perform a few times in New York City. His family had a box at the Emperor's Theatre.
Niki appeared in the distance, joining the gathering group. She spotted a man setting up a folding table and quickly stepped up to help. Together, they drew down the legs and settled it firmly on the uneven ground. She was small and slight, only about five foot three. Sawyer also knew she was twenty-one, and she was partway through an arts degree at GW.
Niki had been drop-dead gorgeous in every picture he'd ever been shown, stunningly glamorous, one of D.C.'s own princesses. But there was no glamour about her today. Not that she could hide her pretty features. The wispy, brunette hairstyle made her look younger, delicate, a bit of a waif. The blue jeans clung softly to her sexy bottom, while the serviceable T-shirt molded to her breasts, making it anything but plain.
"I can see the way you're looking at my sister," Caleb remarked, in a light, yet warning tone.
"Sorry." Sawyer quickly shook himself. His mind didn't usually wander like that, particularly when he was investigating. He didn't know what was wrong with him.
But Caleb chuckled good-naturedly. "She's a beautiful girl. Just remember she's got two very protective big brothers in her life." He left the thought unfinished.
"Noted," Sawyer responded succinctly.
Caleb had absolutely nothing to worry about on that score. Niki might look sweet and innocent out here in the fresh air, but Sawyer knew what lurked beneath the facade. Niki was every bit as dangerous as her mother.