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There's no place like home.
It was stuck in her head like a taunt.
Home was the last place Risa Charez wanted to be.
She'd been back in Luna Hermosa, New Mexico, for less than a week and was already convinced it was a mistake. It should have been a joyous homecoming after more than a decade, a return to the town of her childhood and all the memories of growing up in a place she loved.
Except it didn't feel like home anymore. The reunion had been awkward at best, and the memories, the ones as jagged and sharp as if they'd been made yesterday, had reopened wounds that had never really healed.
She leaned her head against the window frame of the tiny bedroom at the back of her father's house and stared at the pasture and the mountains beyond, painted in the warm colors of autumn with the contrast of a brilliant turquoise sky. This had been her room once, a lifetime ago, this vista a beloved view. She could recount every time she'd been here in the last eleven years, for they'd been few: her mother's death, the obligatory Christ-mases, her eighteenth birthday and the last time she could lay claim to this room as her own.
But she had never come back for more than a few days. Until now.
A light tap on the door drew her away from her memories, and she went to open it, knowing it would be her father.
"We're getting ready to leave." Joseph Charez studied his youngest daughter for a moment, his dark eyes filled with questions Risa knew he wouldn't ask. "Are you sure you won't change your mind and drive over with us?"
"No, thanks. I've got a few things I want to finish up here first," Risa told him. She fiddled with the silver ring she wore, an unconscious reflex inresponse to her secondthird, fourththoughts about promising her father and her sister, Aria, she'd meet them at Rancho Pintada. "You go ahead. I won't be far behind."
Aria had insisted she be included in the party at Jed Garrett's sprawling spread held in advance of the official ceremony to toast the success of Aria's latest venture, the opening of a ranch for children with special needs.
Aria had spearheaded the project, and after years of planning and hard work, It was finally coming to fruition.
That Aria wanted her there as well surprised her. It had been almost a year since she'd last seen her sister, and that had been during one of those quick holiday visits, at their father's house, talking but never really saying anything important to each other. Since then, Aria had married one of the Garrett sons, had a baby and, in the completion of the children's ranch, seen her lifelong dream become reality.
The town's celebration of her sister's accomplishments revived all Risa's old insecurities. She had come home alone, tired of running to escape her past, only to find Luna Hermosa never forgot and that she was still the daughter who'd broken her parents' hearts. She might have been sixteen again, facing the worst time of her life. Everything and everyone was a reminder of how she'd spent the last thirteen years trying and failing to find redemption for her sins.
"You don't have to do this alone, Risa," her father said quietly.
"Do what? Go to Aria's party?" Risa forced a laugh. "I'm pretty sure I can find my way to Rancho Pintada by myself."
Joseph slowly shook his head. He suddenly seemed older, as if her arrival had added more gray, deepened the lines on his forehead, and drained a little of the energy out of his tall, wiry frame.
He lightly touched her face, and the mixed compassion and uncertainty in his searching look made her glance away. "I never understood why you ran away from us. You were just a child, barely sixteen. That whole year you were gone, we never heard from you. And when you came back you'd changed so much, and then it was only months and you were gone again. I don't know what happened to you, Risa. You wouldn't tell us anything. But I know whatever it was hurt you."
"Dad, please. That was a long time ago. It's over with now." She turned away from him because face-to-face he would know she lied. "I'm fine."
"No, it's not over. It's still hurting you. It's why even though you've come home, I still don't have my daughter back."
Her throat tightened painfully, and she swallowed hard against it, fighting tears. "I can't ever be what you want. I never could be. I'm not Aria." She hated herself for saying it as soon as the words left her mouth. All she'd done was to expose petty jealousies and insecurities that she'd have done better to bury and pretend were long dead. "I'm sorry," she said hurriedly before her father could respond.
"Don't be," he said. "It's the truth." When she jerked back at his bluntness, he smiled a little. "You're right. You aren't Aria. But I never wanted you to be. I'm sorry you ever believed differently."
He hugged her, sparing her the need to answer, and she briefly clung to him, wanting in that moment to be again the little girl who depended on her daddy to fix her hurts and shelter her from life's storms.
An hour later, on her way out of town, she reflected it had been a long time since she'd felt like that: secure, at peace with herself and sure of her place in her family's hearts.
An insidious little voice of temptation told her she didn't have to do this, didn't have to put herself on display at a very public event and invite people to look and whisper and speculate on the return of the prodigal daughter. She could easily turn around, call Aria's cell and make some excuse as to why she couldn't make it.
She almost did it. Her foot readied to hit the brake; her hands twitched to turn herself around.
Then she saw the burning car.
Ry Kincaid hefted a shovelful of dirt on the engine fire, soundly cursing the decrepit Land Rover Discovery, its rotten timing in dying in the middle-of-hell nowhere and his own stupid impulse to come to New Mexico in the first place.
The large black bull mastiff dog patiently sitting a few feet away stared dolefully at him as if confirming Ry's opinion of the situation. He scowled at it, and the dog gazed back, unperturbed.
"Next time I take a call from Duran Forrester," he grumbled at it, "bite me."
Right now, Forrester was first on his list of people he'd be happier not knowing existed. If it hadn't been for him, Ry wouldn't be here, would still be the man with no roots, no commitments, no one tying him to a place or responsibilities.
Instead, Forrester had turned him into something else: a twin brother, with a father and five other brothers and innumerable other relations he hadn't bothered to remember.
Ry'd known nothing about his past, except that he'd been abandoned at birth. Then Forrester had tracked him down, claiming to be his twin and looking for someone to save his son, Noah. Noah had needed a bone-marrow transplant, but Ry hadn't been a donor match. Only one thing had come out of the potential donor testing: the proof he and Forrester were brothers.
In the months since, Forrester had been persistent in encouraging Ry to come to Luna Hermosa and meet with Jed Garrett, the man who'd fathered them, and his other newly acquired relatives. Ry wasn't sure he wanted the reunion.
The hardened side of him, too long alone, wanted to ignore their existence and go back to the solitary life he was comfortable with. But there was a small, vulnerable part of him that kept insisting this could be his only chance to have a taste of the family life he was denied growing up. That part made him angrybecause he was powerless to deny it.
He forcefully jammed the blade of the shovel into the ground as an alternative to using it to beat the hell out of the Land Rover. He needed to deal with the immediate problem instead of screwing around trying to figure out what he was going to do about people he'd never met.
Stuck a good ten miles from his destination, with a vehicle that could charitably be called a scrap heap and a cell phone he hadn't bothered to recharge in several days, he was weighing his options when a car came into view. Slowing and pulling to a stop alongside him, the driver cranked down the passenger-side window and leaned over toward him.
"Do you need some help?"
If it had been a man asking, he wouldn't have hesitated. But it was very definitely a woman. He only had a partial picture of her, stretched as she was over the seat: a slender arm concealed by a long-sleeved black shirt; chin-length hair the color of dark caramel that slanted over one cheek and threatened to get in her eyes, framing features more sensually attractive than classically beautiful.
Her expression held a hint of wariness as she took in Ry, the dog and the still-smoking Land Rover. "I can call someone for you," she offered. "Where were you headed?"
"Rancho Pintada," he said shortly. He kept his distance, though, and began petting his dog, who had lumbered over to his side.
Surprise flitted over her face, but she held it in check. "From the looks of it, you aren't going to get there any time soon." She gestured toward the Land Rovervarious tones of faded brown, scrapes and dents from roof to bottom and a passenger door so mangled it wouldn't openand amusement mingled with polite concern.
"I'll figure something out. But thanks for stopping."
"Oh, for heaven's sake," she muttered. Before he could tell her no, she was out of the car, facing him over the hood. "Were you planning on walking the eleven miles there?"
He shrugged. "Maybe. It's not that far."
"I guess when you drive something like that you're used to walking."
When he didn't respond to the sardonic observation, she looked at him more closely, eyes narrowing, and Ry could see she was trying to place him. He didn't have to ask why. Forrester had warned him he had more than blood in common with Jed Garrett.
The idea he wouldn't be able to go unrecognized for long racheted up the tension crawling under his skin. Sensing his uneasiness, the dog stiffened, growling low in its throat. He put a hand to it, briefly working his fingers against the rough fur.
To her credit, Risa Charez didn't do what most women and many men would have done, retreat to the safety of the car. He admitted a reluctant admiration for the way she stood her ground, looking steadily at him despite the clench of her hands and the utter stillness of her body that betrayed her apprehension.
He was used to that reaction. More often than not, he'd been told he and his dog, Bear, made an intimidating pair. And he doubted on looks alone he was doing much to dispel her first, probably less than flattering, impression. His jeans and boots were dusty, he hadn't bothered shaving in nearly a week and his hair, bleached an indeterminate shade of light brown by the elements, was overlong and scruffy.
"Bear doesn't like strangers. But he won't bother you. Unless you try to hurt me," he added with a slight smile.
She relaxed her stance a little, and her mouth lifted in a wry twist, acknowledging the ridiculousness of his words. He had to be a good foot taller than her, with the raw strength to break her with the least effort.
"I'll keep that in mind." There was a pause, during which she glanced between him and Bear. Then she said, "I'm headed to Rancho Pintada myself, for the party. I can give you a ride."
This time he hesitated. "Party?"
"The official opening ceremony for a children's ranch, my sister's latest project. Wasn't that why you were headed there?"
"No. I'm meeting Duran Forrester, mybrother," he forced out the word, "He said he was living at the ranch for the time being."
"Your brother ?" She stared at him a few moments and then recognition clicked into place. "You're Ry Kinkaid, Duran's twin."
"Yeah," he made the reluctant admission.
"I'm Risa Charez. My sister is married to your brother Cruz," she said.
Ry recognized one of the names Forrester had given him for his other five brothers. He still hadn't gotten them all straight, since Garrett had seven sons by different women, and only two of his offspring had Garrett's name.
"Have you met Jed, yet?" Risa asked him. "I guess you know he's in the hospital."
Ry gave a curt nod. "That's why I'm here. I figure with him being sick, it's now or never."
The fall that had put Garrett into the hospital had been the deciding factor in Ry's trip to Luna Hermosa. Duran had told him the man already had cancer; he'd broken his hip in the fall and then come down with some sort of infection. From what he'd gathered, the family worried that Garrett might not be able to overcome the combination. If Ry wanted to meet the man who'd fathered him, his brother emphasized now might be his only chance.
"I got into town yesterday, but haven't seen him yet," he said. "Seems like a funny time to have a party."
"The opening ceremony was planned weeks ago. Besides, my sister, Aria, said Jed insisted everyone go ahead because" she slipped into an imitation of a graveled male voice "he hadn't planned on goin' to another damned party just so he could listen to all the old hens in town talk about what a bastard he was."
"I like him already."
"You'd be one of the only ones," Risa said with a laugh. "So, do you still want that ride? I'm already late, and if I drive really slowly we can probably miss most of it."
My kind of woman, he thought, at the same time wondering at her reluctance to join the gathering. "You sure?"
"About the driving slowly or the ride?" she asked, then shook her head, indicating she didn't need a reply. "Yes to both. The three of us will be a tight fit, though. I'm not going to have room for" she glanced behind him to the Land Rover "for much of whatever it is you've got piled up in the back of that thing."
"Room and board," he said briefly. "And I'll settle for Bear and me. I'll come back for the rest of it later."
She walked around to open the trunk of her car while he jerked the shovel out of the dirt, tossed it in the back of the Land Rover and retrieved his hat, duster and backpack. He slammed the hood and locked the doors.