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Selena pushed herself up in bed and tried to make sense of the scene before her. Gradually, she brought into focus the man who sat a few paces from her hospital bed, and began to fit together the scenes she'd glimpsed over the past weeks as she'd journeyed in and out of consciousness. Each time she'd become aware of herself, he'd been there.
Sunlight streamed in the uncurtained window, and she closed her eyes for a moment, getting her bearings, so that she could deal with him.
"Why are you here? Did you come to protect your family name?" she asked him.
Magnus Cooper tipped back his chair, spread his long legs and stuck his hands in his pants pockets. "I'm here because you need me," he told her. She wasn't so sick that she'd let herself be fooled by another Cooper, even if the population of Waverly, Texas, thought this one propelled himself with wings.
She could see in his bearing that he was accustomed to wielding authority; even his deep, soothing voice carried a command, though she didn't detect in him any arrogance or self-satisfaction. Still, she didn't know why he'd come, so she'd best be on her guard. Strange pinions of excitement shot through her as his gaze captured hers.
"I came here to help you," he repeated, smiling and leaning toward her as though to appear less threatening.
"You want me to believe you're that different from your brother?"
His whole visage darkened in an expression of pain. "I love my brother, Selena, I won't deny that. He is my flesh and blood. But I have never countenanced his wrongdoings, and I won't defend him when he's wrong. I know what he is, and there are times when I wonder that we have the same genes. He's without morals where women are concerned, but I don't suppose I'll ever give up hope that he'll change. I know what he's capable of. That's why I'm here. How do you feel?"
She didn't know whether to believe him, whether she could trust him. "Please go away and leave me alone." She tapped the bell that rested on the table beside her bed.
"I can't leave you alone," he said, his tone low and soothing. "You need me."
Selena tugged the rough sheet up close to her neck, hating the feel of its irritating texture against her skin. "How do you know what I need?" And what did he know about it? She wouldn't be lulled into a trap, especially not one shrouded in what seemed to be trustworthy manliness.
A nurse rushed through the door and saved Magnus a reply to Selena's question. "We have to check you out today, Miss Sutton. Hospital policy, you know. After six weeks here, we recommend a convalescent home. I can give you the name of one in San Antonio, since we don't have one here in Waverly."
"Six weeks? I've been here six weeks?" She sniffed and covered her nose against the odor of alcohol and disinfectant. She'd made an awful mistake uprooting her life and moving south to Waverly in search of a stress-free existence and the company of genteel men; so far, not so good. And what she wanted most, a child of her own before she got to be thirty-five, now seemed like a pipe dream, because she hadn't been out with one eligible man in the seven months she'd lived in Waverly. She glanced at the handsome one who sat inches from her bed. A smooth brown face with wonderful hazel eyes and, if ever she'd seen an invitation to a wild romp and unrestrained hedonism, he was it. Well, one man didn't make it Sadie Hawkins Day in Waverly, Texas.
The nurse favored her with a professional smile. "Six weeks, dear. You don't get over pneumonia and fevers overnight, and especially if you've got three broken ribs. Mr. Cooper here has been to see you every day of those six weeks. Don't find men like him often. Mr. Cooper's checking you out this morning. You take good care and see your doctor in three weeks for your checkup," the nurse admonished as she swished out of the room.
"He's doing What is this?"
"I'd better get back to my station. Mr. Cooper will tell you all you want to know," the nurse said from the door. Selena sensed that the two were in cahoots, but didn't air her thoughts. The effort required to sit up in bed had exhausted her, and she lay down and turned her back to Magnus Cooper.
"Selena, listen to me. I'm not your enemy. You can't go back to your rooms at the Waverly Inn, because they've been rented. Besides, you're not strong enough to take care of yourself. And even if you were, you'd be vulnerable to whatever vengeful trick Prince decided to pull."
Anger sufficed for strength, and Selena flipped over and sat up. "What the devil has he got to be vengeful about? I didn't do anything to him. It was the other way around. How can you suggest "
"If what you've accused him of occurred, and I have no reason to disbelieve you, he doesn't deserve defense, and he isn't getting that. Please hear me out."
His quiet, soothing way of speaking comforted her and invited her trust. "Selena, I know my brother, and I am aware that, where women are concerned, he can be mean, ruthless and abusive. Will you tell me what happened?"
After her bitter experience with his brother, she wasn't going to be taken in by Magnus Cooper's smoothly persuasive manners.
"Selena," he insisted, "you're going to have to trust someone, and you're safer trusting me, because I haven't judged you. What happened? I know what the gossips say, but I need to hear it from you."
Selena gazed at him, judging him as best she could. A smile flickered at the side of his mouth as he waited for her answer, and she knew he not only understood her hesitance, but appreciated it. She would trust him a little. But not blindly and not completely.
"Your brother gave me an ultimatum," she began, gauging his reaction. "I quit my six-figure-a-year job as a Wall Street broker because I refused to be victimized. A full partnership in a prestigious firm, a hot stock portfolio and a fat salary were not worth my integrity.
"After I sued and lost my case in the appeals court, I moved down here in the hopes of living among kinder and friendlier people. Not your brother. He offered me a ride home during a heavy downpour. Four short blocks. But instead of taking me home, he drove up on Whisper Hill, parked and began pawing over me. He swore that if I hadn't wanted his attention, I wouldn't have gotten in the car. The fact is, I'd always smiled and ignored his passes, and he couldn't have expected me to accept his advances. Alone on that deserted hill, he had the advantage. I resisted him until he became angry, tore my dress and attempted to force me. I realized that he was out of control and that, if I didn't escape, he'd have his way. I told him I'd sue him in court if he touched me again.
"Let's see. His exact words were, "Give it up or get out.' I'd never been on Whisper Hill, didn't know it existed. But pitch-dark, a torrential rainstorm and that rocky, snake-infested ridge looked better to me than he did, so I got out. But I tripped over a rock bed and fell. My side hurt so badly that I had to crawl part of the way. By the time I got to the highway, I'd lost a shoe, my clothes were torn and soaked by that rain and I was freezing. I flagged the first car that passed. I think it was Cora Moore, though I sure hope it wasn't. That's about as much as I remember."
A muscle jumped at the side of Magnus's jaw. "It was Cora, all right. Of course, her version doesn't match yours."
It hurt, but she hid it. "I wouldn't expect it to."
He leaned forward. "Selena, will you tell me why you got in that car with Prince? I have never associated you with him, and learning you'd been with him shocked me. Had you been seeing him?"
"No, indeed. He's asked me numerous times to go out with him, but Prince is not the type of man whose company I'd choose. That evening, a group of us were standing in front of the Center after work waiting for the rain to slacken. Prince drove by and offered Eloise and me a ride home. He let her out first, but he didn't take me home to the inn as he'd promised."
Magnus stood and rubbed the back of his neck, as though frustrated. "Typical. He's devious. You can't go back to the inn, because they've rented your rooms. People around here will desert you in a hurry, if they think they'll lose a dollar. You're better off at my ranch."
"What? So I'll be easy pickings for your brother?" She glared at him. "And maybe you, too?"
Magnus raised himself to his full six feet, three inches, walked over to her bed and lifted her hand. "My home is the one place in or near Waverly where I know you'll be safe from Prince. You rejected him. He'll stay after you 'til he gets youone way or another. He left town the morning after he abused you, but he'll come back here, as he always does after the "tumult and the shouting' die. Prince is not used to having women ignore him or turn him down, and you can bet his ego needs a shot of retribution. But this time, I'm not going to let him hide behind our mother's social status to escape punishment."
She folded her arms across her chest, but she missed the feeling of safety and the warmth that had begun flowing through her the second he grasped her hand. "I'm not going to jump out of the frying pan into the fire."
"I'm trying to help, Selena." A muscle twitched involuntarily beneath his right eye. "If you're afraid to be around me, I'll lock your room door and give you both keys."
"Afraid? I wasn't scared when I stepped out of Prince's car on that hill full of snakes and cacti in a drenching rain. Why should I " She paused when she saw him flinch as though in pain.
"Don't," he said. "I'll never forgive him for that."
"You won't forgive him. He hasn't heard the last from me. Believe it."
"Come home with me, Selena. The ranch is sprawling, and my home is spacious. You may have the guest apartment, and you won't have to see me, if you'd prefer not to. My housekeeper is there, and she'd love to have company. Selena, I know you're capable of taking care of yourself, but you don't know Prince. Come with me and stay until you've fully recovered. I give you my word you'll be safe."
If she had to bet, she'd wager that he was a man of honor. Still, nobody was quite as they seemed. "What choice do I have?"
He slanted his head to the side and narrowed one eye. "Several, I'd sayall of them unacceptable."
She couldn't help smiling. He didn't attempt to paint it good or bad, but told it as he saw it. "All right. I'll go with you." She knew she wasn't taking a chance. Magnus Cooper had an enviable reputation and was much admired as a community leadereverything that his younger brother was not.
Selena looked up at the massive replica of a longhorn steer's head that guarded the gate to Cooper Ranch. White wooden fences that reached beyond her field of vision corralled spotted red longhorns and, at the end of the long roadway, there loomed before her a sprawling white Georgian-type mansion, its windows shuttered in dark green. Great pecan trees lined the roadway and shaded the house, and several willows swayed in what seemed to be a garden. The abode of a rich man. The silent invitation of the slowly opening front door unsettled her momentarily, and she let herself lean on Magnus's strong arm.
"I thought y'all would never get here. Come on in." Magnus hadn't mentioned his mother, and Selena wondered if the short and slender dark woman who rushed to her with a broad smile and open arms could be her. Somehow, she sensed that this stranger loved Magnus, but was not the woman who had given him birth. At five feet, eight inches tall, Selena could barely return the hug, because bending to the petite woman's level proved uncomfortable.
"Selena, this is Tessie Jenkins, my housekeeper and dearest friend."
"Magnus didn't tell me that I could expect such a warm greeting, Tessie. I'm happy to meet you." And indeed she was, for the friendly, motherly woman's manner eased her concerns about staying in Magnus's home.
"Me, too. Now, maybe I'll get to see Magnus once in a while. Between work and that hospital, I've barely glimpsed him for weeks."
Inside, Selena looked up at the staircase and groaned, as Magnus steered her toward it.
"I'm not sure I can take those stairs," she said and immediately felt herself heaved up into Magnus's arms.
"Look, I didn't mean to I wasn't asking you to " What had come over her? She didn't sputter, but neither had she been in this man's strong and strangely comforting arms.
"'Course you were," he said, surprising her with the teasing. "And I'm settling you upstairs, so I can carry you up there. Gives me a chance to get you in my arms."
"What?" She closed her eyes and looked away. It had to be the shock of feeling his arms around her that had caused her to react that way. They were only hands that held her, she reminded herself, but they made her want to hold on to him. Stupid. What was the matter with her?
"Magnus, don't tease. You'll make her uneasy," Tessie scolded. "You'll be comfortable here, Miss Selena, and safe, too."
Selena smiled at the woman, glad for her presence. "Call me Selena, Tessie."
She sensed a special relationship between Tessie and Magnus, and, after Magnus left them, the housekeeper confirmed it.