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The damned things had to be here somewhere.
Cursing himself for never taking the time to sort out the years of accumulated junk jammed into every nook and cranny of the battered rolltop desk, Rafe Garrett yanked out another drawer, rifling through papers in search of the ones he wanted.
Abran Santiago, laid up with a broken hip, was sending another vet out in his place and Rafe needed to lay his hands on the vaccination records for his bison. Another yearling had turned up sick today and if this new vet didn't have any better idea of how to stop the illness from spreading further and killing more of his calves, Rafe's little experiment with establishing a bison herd on Rancho Pintada was going to be over in short order.
As he pushed his hand to the back of the drawer to drag out the last of the papers his fingers brushed something cool and hard. Frowning, he pulled it out and found himself staring at a heart, shaped from pale-pink quartz and strung on a thin silver chain. It had been shoved in the back of the drawer for so long he'd almost forgotten it.
Touching it with the tip of his finger, he found himself flooded with memories thirteen years old. And all of them were of her.
The delicate thing curved against his work-roughened hand looked wrong. Like Julene Santiago in his arms—it didn't belong.
It had been hers, of course, lost here that last night he'd held her. Holding it now opened him up to the pain he'd thought he'd finally become immune to. It exposed as lies all the times he'd told himself he'd forgotten her. That he didn't remember how her bare skin felt warm and soft against his. How it felt to tangle his hands in her hair,the dark smoothness of it. How it wound around them like a living thing when they made love.
That she didn't matter to him anymore.
You'll never be good enough for her. You're just a ranch hand like your daddy. You'll never have anything worth giving her. You'd best remember that and stay away from that girl.
He hadn't stayed away—then. And it had eaten him up inside because he knew it could never be the forever they both had wanted. Until, finally, he'd found the guts to let her go.
Except she hadn't gone. She was always with him. He'd never truly wanted another woman since. And sometimes he hated her for that.
He started to crush the necklace in his fist and throw it aside once and for all. The memories stopped him in mid gesture and instead, he very gently returned it to its hiding place, slowly closing the drawer as if by doing so he could finally lay the past to rest.
He couldn't, but he could pretend.
Forgetting the papers, Rafe grabbed up his Stetson and headed for the barns.
He deliberately took the path that kept him as far away as possible from the main ranch house. He was determined to avoid a confrontation with Jed today, rehashing the same old argument over what Jed considered Rafe's foolhardy idea to establish the bison herd along with the cattle and horses raised on Rancho Pintada. If he kept away from the house, it should be easy enough. Jed spent most of his time there these days, laid up from the chemotherapy treatments.
"Hey, Rafe! Wait a minute."
Rafe felt the tension in his neck and shoulders ratchet up a notch, immediately knowing it was his youngest brother, Josh. But he stopped short of the barns, turning to answer the call.
"What now? And don't bother telling me if it's something the old man wants."
"Okay, I'll skip that part." Josh Garrett flashed a cocky grin as he strode up to Rafe.
They were family because of Rafe's adoption, but Rafe always figured that anyone who didn't know that would never believe they were brothers. Josh nearly matched him in height, but Josh was lankier, his tousled whiskey-colored hair and green eyes a sharp contrast to the dark coloring bestowed by Rafe's American-Indian heritage.
"You know, you don't always have to look like I'm gonna deliver the worst news of the day," Josh drawled, as he leaned against a fencepost. "'Course, at this point, I'm pretty much convinced that scowl is permanently engraved on your face."
"If that's all you wanted, I've got work to do," Rafe said, used to ignoring Josh's banter.
"When do you not have work to do? Wait, I know—that would be never." Josh held up his hands in mock defense when Rafe's scowl turned even darker. "Don't kill the messenger. Especially when he's come to invite you to a party."
Josh whipped an envelope out of his jacket pocket and thrust it at Rafe. Rafe eyed it suspiciously, not making any move to take it. "What is it?" "I told you, an invitation. Sawyer's new house is finally done and he and Maya are throwing a party there this weekend."
"And you're going?"
"Sure, why not? Apart from the fact Sawyer's my brother, it's free food and beer and the chance to find out if Maya's got any single friends as hot as she is."
"Sounds like your definition of paradise. Have fun."
"You know, Sawyer's your brother, too—"
"Sawyer Morente isn't my brother," Rafe interrupted. He glared at Josh, hoping in vain to shut him up for once.
"Yeah, he is, despite your best attempts to pretend he, Cort and I don't exist." For a moment, Josh dropped his usual cavalier attitude and looked almost serious—a rarity that robbed Rafe of a ready comeback. "Maybe you should think about giving up your grudge against us—and everything human—and admit you have a family, like it or not. Now might be a good time with Dad hell-bent on tracking down his longlost son. I know, I know," he said as Rafe started to interrupt, "you wanna pretend that he doesn't exist, too. But Dad's set on a family reunion so the rest of us gotta stick together. Besides—" serious gave way to swagger again "—if you patch things up with Sawyer and Cort, you'll probably be able to talk them into selling you the shares of this place that Dad is so dead set on forcing on them. Make nice with them and for the right price they might sell, and I might, too."
"When hell freezes over."
"Stranger things have happened." Before Rafe could push past him and head into the barns, Josh made a quick motion and shoved the envelope into Rafe's pocket. "Think about it."
Rafe didn't bother answering as he turned his back and pushed the barn door open. He'd spent enough time dredging up the past today. He had no intention of adding to it by thinking about Sawyer and Cort Morente.
They were just two more on the list of broken relationships Rafe had left behind, two more that couldn't be fixed. * * * "Why didn't you tell me?"
Looking at her father lying in the hospital bed, Julene Santiago stopped herself—just—from letting a surge of anger raise her voice. She turned away so he wouldn't see it in her face, looking out the window, her eyes dazzled by the early morning sunlight. Seeing her father like this had unsettled her enough that even though she wanted to confront him over what he'd done, she couldn't bring herself to do more than ask the question. Her father, with his lean, wiry build, wasn't a big man, but confined to bed with a broken hip, his usual energetic activity curbed, he looked grayer and diminished, almost frail.
He'd talked her into coming home, into taking over his busy practice for a few months while he recuperated from his recent riding accident. He was the only vet in Luna Hermosa and he'd told her he didn't like bringing in a stranger from Taos, and who better to step in for him than his daughter? She knew the area and the people knew her. Hadn't she planned on quitting that big animal hospital in Albuquerque anyway, to set up her own practice somewhere smaller?
Her father hadn't said anything outright but Jule knew he secretly hoped once she'd been back a while, she'd get so comfortable she'd stay and take over his practice permanently. It was something he'd been hinting at for a while, implying she'd be the perfect person to take over for him when he retired.
Despite his hints, Jule had promised nothing except to stay until he was back on his feet. She'd agreed to do that partly out of love for him, but largely because she'd felt so restless lately. She always had liked working with animals but somehow, in Albuquerque, it felt so impersonal—not like in Luna Hermosa where she knew everyone, where she'd grown up.
Only her father had conveniently forgotten to tell her that she'd be spending a lot of her time at Rancho Pintada—the one place she never expected to see again.
That she'd be spending a lot of her time with Rafe Garrett. She shouldn't have come back. "Why didn't you tell me?" she said again as she turned back to the bed.
Abran Santiago shifted with a wince then shrugged. "What was there to tell? I've been going to Rancho Pintada since before you were born. Why would you think that had changed?"
"I didn't think it had. But I didn't know about the bison and that you'd been going out there every other day for the last month." Her father had finally told her this morning that he'd been working with the bison at the ranch for the better part of a year while Rafe had apparently been trying to establish a herd. Several calves had died from an illness and Rafe was worried enough to call her father himself—out of character because he and her father had never gotten along.
Jule nearly laughed at that. Saying Rafe and her father had never gotten along was a huge understatement.
"What does it matter?" Abran said, with a touch of ill-disguised irritation. The prolonged inactivity had made him short tempered and restless. Even Jule's mother's patience, usually endless, had been stretched thin. "Do you have something against bison?"
"It's not the bison. It's Jed Garrett I don't like." That was true, at least.
"No one likes Jed Garrett, not even his own family. What does that have to do with it?" Abran's eyes narrowed. "Don't tell me this has to do with Rafe. That was years ago. You were just a girl. Surely none of that matters now?"
Her eyes slid away from his. "Of course not." "Which means it does, since you can't look me in the eye and tell me it doesn't. I never understood your infatuation with that boy," Abran said wearily.
Jule could feel him watching her, weighing what he wanted to say. They'd never talked about her relationship with Rafe.
Instead, they'd had flaming arguments, her father on one side, telling her all the reasons Rafe was wrong for her and her on the other, insisting none of that mattered and vowing she'd never give Rafe up. In the end it hadn't mattered because Rafe had given up on her.
She glimpsed her reflection in the window glass and she could see both the girl she'd been and the woman she'd become. Right now, they didn't feel so very different.
"No, you never did," she agreed, turning back to her father.
"But it doesn't matter now."
It shouldn't matter, she told herself, and kept repeating it the whole drive from the hospital to Rancho Pintada even while she called herself a fool for being anywhere near Jed Garrett's ranch in the first place. Instead of thirteen years, it seemed like only hours since she'd last been here.
Since she'd last seen Rafe.
Idiot. We were kids then, childhood best friends, that's all. Dad was right. It was years ago.
There was no reason for the hard knot of nervous anticipation lodged in her stomach, the one that made her almost sick at the thought of seeing him again. There was nothing of the old feelings for him left. She'd been a teenager, overly dramatic and emotional, convinced her life depended on Rafe loving her. He'd thrown away their chance at love, broken her heart, and if she felt anything for him it was leftover anger at the callous way he'd cut her out of his life.
Oh, yeah, she was so over him. That was why she was thirty one with her vision of a soul mate still stuck at eighteen. Why she'd never had any other relationship that had lasted longer than a few months. Why she'd only made love twice in her life. With Rafe. Thirteen years ago.
"I can't, Jule. I can't love you."
"Can't—or won't?" "Can't, won't, it doesn't matter. Just go."
She had gone. But she had left her heart and soul behind. She should never have come back. Get a grip on yourself. He's probably forgotten all about you, moved on a long time ago to someone else. Like you should have done.
She turned onto the long drive leading into Rancho Pintada and drove down toward the barns, forcing back any emotion except concern for the animals she was here to care for. This wasn't a long-awaited reunion. She was here to do a job and nothing else. She'd see him again, realize whatever had been between them was long dead and then, maybe, finally, her heart could move on.
Jule avoided the turn to the main house. She had no desire to renew her acquaintance with Jed Garrett. What she felt for him for his treatment of Rafe still bordered on hatred.
Rafe's father and Jed had started Rancho Pintada together, but when Jed had married Theresa Morente and her family money, he'd made himself more owner than partner and Rafe's father took on the role of ranch foreman. When Rafe's parents were killed in a car crash and Jed and Theresa adopted their six-year-old orphaned son, people at first assumed it was out of respect for his partner, to ensure Rafe kept a share in the ranch.
But Jule had quickly come to the conclusion that something else was behind the adoption, although neither she nor Rafe had ever been able to understand what. Theresa never considered Rafe her child. She'd walked out on Jed two years after the adoption, taking her own two sons and leaving Rafe behind with Jed. She had died three years ago without ever seeing Rafe again. And to Jed, Rafe had never been more than a ranch hand with the Garrett name.
Jule couldn't forgive Jed or Theresa for that, so she bypassed the main house and parked her pickup truck close to the barns.
She'd climbed out of the cab and was reaching for her bag when a man came striding out of the barn nearest the drive.
They both stopped and stared.
And in that moment, it was yesterday again.