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"I'm not who they said I was." Chet Barron stood in Mina Ferguson's doorway like the walking wounded, his cowboy hat in hand, his short, dark blond hair mussed and out of place. He might've even looked like a bronc buster who'd just been thrown off a wild horse if it wasn't for the gray business suit he had on.
But that was the worse for wear, too; his silk tie was undone, his jacket open to show the wrinkles marring his fine white shirt.
"Chet?" Mina asked.
Shell-shocked, her boss took one step toward her threshold with those Justin Bootsthe last vestiges of the cowboy he used to be only eight months ago, before he'd become one of the most powerful tycoons in Texas, if not the entire country.
She took his hand and pulled him the rest of the way into her home, toward the couch, forgetting about the T-shirt and cutoffs she was wearinga far cry from the polished skirt suits he usually saw her in.
At the feel of his skin, her pulse jittered, and she knew what would come nexta surge of the blood in her veins. A flip of the belly.
But she knew how to hide how she felt around her boss.
"What's wrong?" she asked as they sat down. "They lied to me. All these years " The cryptic words seemed to freeze in the air. "What do you mean by that?"
"I mean," he said, his tone still dead, "I'm not his son."
It seemed like a full minute lumbered past.
"I don't understand," Mina said. "Are you talking about Abe? He's.not your father?"
Chet nodded, and when he started to say something else, he choked on the words, burying his face in his hands in a struggle to contain himself.
She exhaled, resting her hand on his arm. Even through his jacket, she felt a burn on her skin, just as she always did when she happened to brush against him while leaning down to set papers on his desk. Or if there happened to be an accidental whisk against each other as they passed in the halls of the offices of the Barron Group.
"It turns out that this was the real reason my dad brought me down here from Montana all those months ago," Chet said, tight sorrow taking hold of his words. "It wasn't just because he had cancer. It wasn't just because he was dying and he wanted me to sell my cattle spread and take his place as CFO of the Group."
Mina kept her hand on his arm, as if she could absorb his hurt. He gripped his hat in both hands as he stared at the floor, his gaze intense.
"Abe told me the whole truth tonight."
When he glanced at Mina, she crumbled inside, because she would do anything to take the obvious agony away from the man she'd loved ever since she'd first met him.
"He wanted me to come to him," Chet said, "so I could take my 'rightful place.' And as the words came out of his mouth, my uncle Eli just stood there next to him with this look on his face ."
Chet's words got twisted again, his eyes filled with anger, betrayal.
Out of instinct, Mina put her hand at the back of his head, cradling, soothing, almost thinking she could hold a strong man like Chet together.
"Abe told me," he said, "that I was set to inherit a third of the Barron Group, just like my cousins Tyler and Jeremiah. I didn't understand why he and Uncle Eli were going to give me such a big portion when Abe was the minority owner. Then they told me. Eli's my real father. Eli."
His shoulders seemed to lose the steel that had been defining them and he crumbled, his voice gritty with anger and hurt. "My mom had an affair with that bastard years and years ago, and my dad is just telling me now as he's dying "
Garbled words. Decimated. But he was able to start up again.
"They said that I can claim my damned 'rightful place' now. And I left them standing there because I couldn't hear any more of it."
If a heart could explode, that's what Mina's did. As he fisted his hands, his neck straining with everything he was holding back, she pulled him against her, resting his head on her shoulder, wrapping her arms around him. He encompassed her, too, as if she was some kind of pillar, just as solid as she'd always been for him in the office.
His go-to woman.
But it'd never been like this between them, and even though she'd imagined holding him a million times, it wasn't the same now.
She didn't know how long they stayed like that, with him twisting her shirt, pulling at it as he fought emotion, but she heard cars passing by the front window of the tiny house she'd saved up for so diligently, heard the hum of her refrigerator in her kitchen, heard a siren off in the distance.
She didn't pay attention to much of it as his embrace grew tighter and his breath evened out, as she lay her head against his, feeling his thick hair against her face.
He inhaled, a ragged, uneven sound, then shifted, his mouth pressing against her shoulder, where her T-shirt left a patch of skin uncovered, sensitive to every one of his warm breaths.
She couldn't hear anything but her crazed heartbeat, each pump filling her with adrenaline and a growing awareness.
He needed something more.
"It'll be okay, Chet," she whispered. "It'll be just fine."
Thuds marked the seconds, beating in her head, and as she pulled back to look into his gaze, just so he could see that she would make sure everything was okay, she recognized a man in the grasp of utter bewilderment. And then.
Then she leaned into him, pressing her lips to his forehead while cupping his face.
He blinked, his eyes red, but now teeming with something other than raw rage. Hope sprang up in her, sending warmth through every bit of her.
She would make this better. She would do anything to see him smile again.
But then he took her into his arms and pressed his lips to hers so desperately that it robbed her of breath.
Surprise bolted into her. His mouth on hers, the smell of his skin, the urgency in his kiss.
"Mina," he whispered against her lips, as if she'd saved him from the world, even for the moment.
She melted under him, wanting to heal whatever was busted, knowing she was the only one who could comfort him, feeling more alive than ever as the kisses she'd been dreaming of turned to caresses.
As caresses turned into a night that would prove just as fateful as everything that had come before
Mina had a secret.
It wasn't obvious, though. Not yet. And she was taking extra care to make sure no one found out about it by wearing a businesslike, no-nonsense skirt and a jacket that covered her stomacha wardrobe that went along well with the still-warm October weather here in southern Utah.
Yes, she looked just as unruffled as alwaysor, at least, she was really trying toas she directed traffic in her administrative office at the Red Mountain Escape resort, which the Barron Group was redeveloping and preparing to open in a few months.
"Danny," she said, holding out the newly printed brochure she'd just gone over and marked up.
The young guy, fresh out of college, bounded over to her, snatching the brochure. "What'd you think?"
"Almost there," she said. "But good. Real good."
He gave her a nod then gave way to a second staffer who took his place in front of Mina as she moved away from her desk.
It was Corrine, another hungry and ambitious worker. "I've been around the entire property," the brunette said in a Texas drawl. "Everything's in great shape."
"Everything had better be."
Mina's stomach gave a tumble, but she blew out a breath. Hold it together, she kept thinking, as the rest of the staff gathered by the doorway, ready to dart out of it so they could get to their respective posts. Today of all days, you've got to be the Mina that everyone expects you to be.
And it wasn't just because progress on everything from the resort's spa to its stables to its recreational facilities and fine-dining restaurant would be subject to the boss's approval when he finally arrived.
Hugging her iPad to her belly, Mina thought of the boss himself.
Something in her chest melted at the thought of him. Something in her throat got tight.
For the past months, he'd been on a lot of business trips so he could purchase and then oversee the development of the media holdings and properties that kept the Barron Group flush; trips that had taken him away from the office so he and she had barely been able to see each other for an extended time.
But when they did see each other today, she really had some big news for him.
She fought the sweet urge to cup a hand over her tummy. Four and a half months along. Her stomach hadn't pooched out much, though. Mina had wondered if she should be showing more, but her doctor had assured her that the baby was just the right size and growing. Some women didn't show until later.
But just knowing that she was going to have a baby made her feel as if she was bursting. This would be the first time she would get to really spend time with Chet since she'd gone to the doctor, confirming what she'd begun to suspect after missing her period a couple of times. It'd never been regular, anyway, but in this particular instance, there'd been a reason.
The staff was watching her as if they weren't used to this hesitant version of Mina. She'd always been the efficient one, the one who knew exactly what they should be doing and when.
So she became that woman for them.
"I know every one of you is going to impress Chet when he gets here," she said, avoiding the clock on her desk that counted down to the moment he'd be arriving. "So go to it."
And they did, leaving her alone in her cream leather-and-teakwood office, which sat right next door to the one Chet would occupy.
Even without him there, she felt him.
But, really, wasn't he with her in a sense?
She adjusted her jacket over her tummy as nerves surged through her. The last thing she wanted to do was tell him she was expecting, and that's why she'd been putting it off for as long as she could while he was off on all those business trips. That family scandal of his had done its work, chipping away at him until he was only a shell of the man she'd fallen for all those months ago, when he'd first appeared at the Group's offices.
How would a man who was having such issues with his illegitimate birth react to the news that he was having an out-of-wedlock baby?
A car's beeping horn tugged at her attention, and she went to her long window, where a view of the pure blue Utah sky and the ridges of the claylike mountains reached toward the heavens.
Her pulse started jogging double-time now, but it wasn't exactly the breathtaking scenery that did it.
In the near distance, Chet emerged from the back of a town car, shutting the door without waiting for the driver to do it for him. He sauntered over the stone-lined path leading to the offices, his cowboy hat pulled low over his brow, his shoulders wide, his chest broad under a long-sleeved Western shirt. He walked like a man in charge of everything around him, but from the way his gaze was shadowed, Mina knew better. Even from here she could imagine the darkness that turned his blue irises to a midnight hue, that made him resemble a mysterious and dangerousman huddled in the corner of an Old West bar, one hand near his holster, the other resting near a half-empty drinking glass.
Just a glimpse of him made Mina go weak, light and floaty in a nerve-racked way that also caused her to feel more alive than ever before in her life. A little sob wrestled itself down in hershe was so glad to see him. So scared.
Now that they'd be spending some quality time together, she would have to choose the right moment to tell him her news.
If there was a right moment.
He disappeared from her view, entering the administrative building, and her heartbeat got louder, as if the ground was vibrating and sending thunder through her veins.
All she could think about was that night Or, more to the point, the moments after they'd made love, when the world had come crashing down around her.
But now wasn't the time to think of that, especially when she heard him at her doorway.
She exhaled once more, turning around and telling herself not to look as if she had a secret that might send him running.
"Long time, no real see," he said, leaning against the door frame, grinning, as if he was happy to confirm that she'd made it here from San Antonio safely a few days ago when he'd sent her ahead to inspect the property before he arrived.
Mina's insides did something like a thousand individual back bends, tying her up.
Was it because there was something in his gaze? A pow that turned the dark blue of his eyes into a second of firework brightness?
Was he remembering how perfect they'd been for each other just when he'd needed someone to hold him and ease him?
Mina had seen the same pow in him a couple of times since then, during car rides to or from the airport where she would debrief him on the run, or during their frequent long-distance teleconferences. But she could never be sure.
They'd never mentioned that night again. And she'd never told him that the condom he'd worn hadn't worked.