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A half-dozen years… One look from those fabulous eyes and she could still make him act like a foolish kid.
Trent felt his heart slug hard in his chest. Oxygen backed up in his lungs. Dear God, Bryn.
He dragged the remnants of his self-control together and cleared his throat, pretending to ignore the woman standing beside his father's bed.
Her presence in the room made him sweat. The lust, loathing and sharp anger teeming in his gut made it impossible to act naturally, particularly since he wasn't sure if the anger was self-directed or not.
His father, Mac, watched them both with avid curiosity, giving his son a canny, calculating look. "Aren't you going to say something to Bryn?"
Trent tossed aside the damp towel he'd been using to dry his hair when he walked into the room. He folded his arms across his bare chest, then changed his mind and slid his hands into his back pockets. He turned toward the silent woman with what he hoped like hell was an impassive expression. "Hello, Bryn. Long time no see."
The insolence in his tone caused a visible wince to mark her otherwise serene expression, but she recovered rapidly. Her eyes were as cool as a crisp Wyoming morning. "Trent." She inclined her head stiffly in a semblance of courtesy.
For the first time in weeks, Trent saw anticipation on his father's face. The old man was pale and weak, but his voice was strong. "Bryn's here to keep me company for the next month. Surely she won't aggravate me like all those other cows. I can't stand strangers poking and prodding at me.…" His voice trailed off, slurring the last few words.
Trent frowned in concern. "I thought you said you didn't need a nurse anymore. And the doctor agreed."
Mac grunted. "I don't. Can't a man invite an old friend without getting cross-examined? Last time I checked, this was my ranch."
Trent smothered a small, reluctant grin. His father was a grouch on his best days, and recently, he'd turned into Attila the Hun. Three nurses had quit, and Mac had fired two more. Physically, the Sinclair patriarch might be on the mend, but he was still mentally fragile.
It was a comfort to Trent that, although exhaustion marked Mac's face, he was as ornery as ever. The heart attack he'd suffered two months ago, when his youngest son was found dead of a heroin overdose, had nearly cost the family two lives.
Bryn Matthews spoke up. "I was happy to come when Mac contacted me. I've missed you all."
Trent's spine stiffened. Was that a taunt in her perfectly polite words?
He forced himself to look at her. When she was barely eighteen, her beauty had tugged at him like a raw ache. But he'd been on the fast track already, an ambitious twenty-three-year-old with no time for a young wife.
She had matured into a lovely woman. Her skin was the same sun-kissed ivory. Her delicate features were framed by a thick fall of shiny black hair. And her almost-violet eyes gazed at him warily. She didn't appear unduly surprised to see him, but he was shocked right down to his bare toes. His heart was beating so hard, he was afraid she'd be able to see the evidence with her own eyes.
She was dressed more formally than he had ever seen her, in a dark pantsuit with a prim white blouse beneath. Her waist was narrow, her hips curvy. The no-nonsense cut of her jacket disguised her breasts, but his imagination filled in the details.
Bitterness choked him. Bryn was here to cause trouble. He knew it. And all he could think about was how badly he wanted her in his bed.
He ground his teeth together and lowered his voice. "Step into the hall with me." He didn't phrase it as a request.
Bryn preceded him from the room and turned to face him across the narrow space. They were so close he could see a pulse beating in the side of her throat. And he caught a whiff of her familiar, floral-scented perfume. Delicate…like she was. The top of her head barely came up to his chin.
He ignored the arousal jittering through his veins. "What in the hell are you doing here?"
Her eyes flared in shock. "You know why. Your father asked me to come."
Trent growled low in his throat, wanting to pound a hole in the wall. "If he did, it was because you manipulated him into thinking it was his idea. My brother Jesse's not even cold in his grave and yet here you are, ready to see what you can get."
Her eyes flashed, reminding him she had never lacked for gumption. "You're a self-righteous ass," she hissed.
"Never mind." He cut her off, swamped with a wave of self-loathing. She was a liar. And she had tried to blame Jesse for another man's sins. But that didn't stop Trent from wanting her.
He firmed his jaw. "Apparently you couldn't be bothered to make it to the funeral?"
Her lips trembled briefly. "No one let me know that Jesse had died until it was too late."
"Convenient." He sneered. Only by whipping up his anger could he keep his hands off her.
The hurt that flickered in her gaze made him feel as if he was kicking a defenseless puppy. At one time he and Bryn had been good friends. And later—well… there had been a tantalizing hint of something more.
Something that might have developed into a physical relationship, if he hadn't screwed things up.
Bryn had been innocent, not-quite-eighteen, and Trent had freaked out over his reaction to her. He had rejected her clumsily when she asked him to be her date for the senior prom, and she was heartbroken. A few weeks later, she and Jesse started dating.
Had Bryn done it to hurt him?
Trent couldn't blame Jesse. Jesse and Bryn were the same age and had a lot in common.
Bryn's face was pale. Her body language said she wanted to be anywhere other than in this hallway with him.
Well, that was too damn bad.
He leaned forward to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear, whispering softly, "If you think I'll let you take advantage of a sick old man, you're an idiot." He couldn't stop himself.
Bryn's chin lifted and she stepped sideways. "I don't care what you think about me, Trent. I'm here to help Mac. That's all you need to know. And I'm sure you'll be on your way back to Denver very soon…right?" In another situation the naked hope on her face would have amused him. But at the moment, he couldn't escape the irony.
He cocked his head, wishing he could discern the truth. Why had she really come back to Wyoming?
He shrugged. "Tough luck, Bryn. I'm here for the foreseeable future.… I got tapped to take a turn running the place until the old man is back on his feet. So you're stuck with me, sweetheart."
Her cheeks flushed, and her air of sophistication vanished like mist in the morning sun. For the first time he saw a hint of the girl she had been at eighteen. Her agitation made him want to soothe her when what he should be doing was showing her the door.
But his good sense was at odds with his libido. He wanted to crush her mouth beneath his, strip away the somber-looking jacket and find the curves he would map in detail.
The past beckoned, sharp and sweet.… He remembered one of the last times he and Bryn had been together before everything went so badly wrong. He had flown in for his dad's birthday party. Bryn had run to meet him, talking a mile a minute as soon as he got out of the car. She was all legs and slim energy. And she'd had a crush on him.
She would have been mortified if she'd realized he had known all along. So, on that long-ago day he had treated her with the same easy camaraderie that had always existed between them. And he'd done his best to ignore the tug of attraction he felt.
They were not a match in any way.
At least that's what he'd told himself.
Now, in this quiet hallway, he got lost for a moment, caught between the past and the present. He touched her cheek. It was soft…warm. Her eyes were the color of dried lavender, like the small bouquets his mother used to hang in the closets. "Bryn." He felt the muscles in his throat tighten.
Her gaze was guarded, her thoughts a mystery. No longer did he see naked adoration on her face. He didn't trust her momentary docility. She might be trying to play him for her own advantage. But she'd soon find that she was no match for him. He'd do anything to protect his father. Even if it meant bedding the enemy to learn her secrets.
Without thought or reason, his lips found hers. Their mouths clung, pressed, moved awkwardly. His hands found the ripe curves of her breasts and he caressed her gently. He thought she responded, but he couldn't be sure. He was caught up in some weird time warp. When sharp daggers of arousal made him breathless, he jerked back, drawing great gulps of air into his starving lungs.
He ran his hands through his hair. "No." He couldn't think of a follow-up explanation. Was he talking to her or himself?
Bryn's face was dead-white but for two spots of hectic color on her cheekbones. She wiped a shaky hand across her mouth and backed away from him.
Distress filled her eyes and embarrassment etched her face.
She turned and walked away, her gait jerky.
He watched her go, his gut a knot the size of Texas. If she had come again to try to convince them that Jesse had fathered her child, she would get short shrift. It would be in extremely bad taste to accuse a man who wasn't here to defend himself.
Remembering Jesse at this particular moment was a mistake. It brought back every single moment of torment Trent had experienced when his baby brother started dating the woman Trent wanted. The situation had been intolerable, and only by keeping himself in Denver, far away from temptation, had Trent been able to deal with it.
But in his heated fantasies, during the dead of night, it was Bryn, always Bryn. He'd told himself he was over her. He'd told himself he hated her.
But it was all a lie.…
Bryn didn't have the luxury of locking herself in her room and giving way to the storm of emotions that tightened her throat and knotted the muscles between her shoulder blades. Why couldn't Mac's son Gage have been here…or Sloan? She loved both of them like brothers and would have been happy for a reunion. But Trent…Oh, God, had she given herself away? Did he know now she had never gotten over her fascination with him?
She couldn't allow herself to think about what had just happened…refused to acknowledge how she enjoyed the way his hard, naked chest felt beneath her hands. Had she pushed him away or leaned into him?
Don't be a fool, Bryn. Nothing can come of going down that road but more hurt.
When Bryn was sure Mac was napping, she went out to the car to retrieve her suitcase and carry-on. Trent had disappeared to do chores. Bryn was grateful for the respite from his presence.
She stood, arms upraised, and stretched for a moment, shaking off the stiffness from the long flight and subsequent drive. She had forgotten the clearness of the air, the pure blue of the Wyoming sky. In the distance, the Grand Tetons ripped at the heavens, their jagged peaks still snow-capped, even in mid-May.
Despite her stress and confusion, after six years of exile, the familiar Crooked S brand entwined prominently in the massive wrought-iron gates at the end of the driveway felt like a homecoming. The imposing metalwork arched skyward as if to remind importunate visitors, "You're nobody. Trespass at your own risk."
The four boys used to call it the "Crooked Ass Ranch." Mac hadn't thought the irreverence funny.
Before going back inside, Bryn studied the house with yearning eyes. Little had changed since she had been gone. The sprawling two-story structure of timber and stone had cost millions to build, even in the mid-seventies when Mac had constructed it for his young bride.
The house rested, like a conqueror, on the crest of a low hill. Everything about it reeked of money, from the enormous wraparound porch to the copper guttering that gleamed in the midday sun. The support beams for the porch were thick tree trunks stripped of bark. Flowering shrubs tucked at the base of the house gave a semblance of softness to the curb appeal, but Bryn wasn't fooled.
This was a house of powerful, arrogant men.
Back inside, she picked up her phone and dialed her aunt's number. Even though the Sinclair's ranch was in the middle of nowhere, Mac had long ago paid for a cell tower to be built near the house. With enough money, anything could be bought, including all the trappings of an electronic society.
When Aunt Beverly answered, Bryn felt immediately soothed by the familiar voice. Six years ago her mother's older sister had taken in a scared, pregnant teenager and had not only helped Bryn enroll in community college and find a part-time job, but when the time came, she had also been a doting grandmother, in every sense of the word, to Allen.
Bryn chatted with a cheer she didn't feel, and then asked to speak to her son. Allen's tolerance for phone conversations was limited, but it comforted Bryn to hear his high-pitched voice. The family next door had two new puppies. Aunt Beverly was taking him to the neighborhood pool tomorrow. His favorite toy fire truck had lost a wheel. "Love you. Bye, Mommy."
And with that, he was gone.
Beverly came back on the line. "Are you sure everything is okay, sweetheart? He can't make you stay."
Bryn squeezed the bridge of her nose and cleared her throat. "I'm fine…honestly. Mac is weaker than I expected, and they're grieving for Jesse."
"What about you?"
Bryn paused, trying to sort through her chaotic feelings. "I'm still coming to terms with it. He didn't break my heart. What we had was more hormones than happily-ever-afters. But he nearly destroyed my world. I never forgave him for that, but I didn't want him dead." Her throat thickened, making it hard to speak.
Beverly's gentle words echoed her strength. "We've gotten by without the money all this time, Bryn. It's not worth losing your pride and your self-respect. If they give you trouble, promise me you'll leave."