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Justin Slade was home. It'd been three days now.
His Ford F-150 truck barreled down the highway with enough horsepower to match the equine force of Sunset Ranch's best thoroughbreds, radio blasting Luke Bryan's latest country hit. It was beat-tapping music. At any other time, Justin would be pounding the dashboard in sync with the rhythm.
But today, he wasn't enjoying the music, the blue Nevada sky or the morning weather, which was clear and crisp enough to remind him winter was on the distant horizon. His gut churned in half a dozen ways as he faced what he was about to do. The marine in him hadn't a doubt he was doing the right thing. He had to come clean for Matilda Applegate's sake and for Brett.
He punched the off button on the radio and Luke's voice disappeared.
Appropriate silence filled the air.
A cold shiver of dread hung around him like an invisible cloak, refusing to be shrugged off with upbeat music or good weather. Brett Applegate was dead. It was Justin's fault, and Brett's aunt, his only living relative, needed to know the truth.
He pressed his foot to the pedal and glanced around the outskirts of Silver Springs as a sultry female voice on his GPS gave him the coordinates. Gravel spit under his tires.
The deserted road narrowed and a knot in the pit of his stomach begged for this to be over. He'd been on dangerous missions in Afghanistan that hadn't caused him this much anxiety. Guilt and apprehension sucked as constant companions.
Justin popped two antacids into his mouth. He'd been living on the darn things lately.
"In fifty feet, turn right," the GPS voice instructed.
Justin made the turn and drove his truck down a dusty dirt path that wound its way toward a one-story ranch house matured by frigid winters, hotter-than-hell summers and a string of bad months in between. Seeing Brett's home in such a state of neglect was a sharp shot of reality, testament to the economic misery the Applegates had suffered over the years. Brett had always said his uncle Ralph would've gotten heartsick seeing what had happened to his once-proud home.
As the truck ambled closer, Justin caught a glimpse of a disabled car near the house, the back tire flatter than a flapjack, and a woman bending over, her head deep in the bowels of the trunk. Her jewel-pocketed derriere pointed skyward, drawing his immediate gaze. Hell, it was a beacon for any man in his right mind to stop and help out.
Justin pressed on the brake, keeping his eyes trained on a sight he hadn't seen in a long time: a gorgeous, perfectly shaped female ass. It was enough to get his juices flowing. Heck, after nine years in the marines, it didn't take much. But hot damn, the view was fine.
He swallowed and climbed down from the cab of his truck. His boots ate gravel as he neared the back of her car. The woman's silky blouse climbed her waist while she continued to search the trunk, and his eyes locked on to five inches of soft-as-butter, creamy skin.
"Sweet heaven, what else is going to go wrong?" Her voice flowed over him like smooth bourbon. He grabbed a peek of that exposed skin again.
Man, oh, man.
He cleared his throat. Darn his mama for teaching him gentlemanly manners. Forcing his gaze away from her beautiful bottom, he focused on her curly, platinum-blond hair.
"Excuse me, miss. Can I lend a hand?" She jerked up and hit her head on the inside of the trunk. "Ow."
She scowled as her hand went to her head, rubbing away the pain. "Oh, I didn't see you"
Their gazes locked. Her hand froze in her shoulder-length platinum locks. Her brows pulled tight and her lips rounded. "Oh."
She was a stunner.
A twinge of recollection jarred him out of his lusty thoughts.
He remembered those deep jade eyes, that pouty mouth and Marilyn Monroe hair only a few women could pull off. He would've bet his last dollar he'd never see her again. And now, here she was in the flesh.
On Matilda Applegate's homestead, no less.
He didn't much believe in coincidences. And this one was too big to ignore. His gut churned again, begging for another antacid.
Maybe he was wrong. It had been over a year and a half ago. Maybe she only looked like the woman he'd met in New York City that one weekend.
Justin removed his Stetson and her eyes flickered at the gesture.
"Sorry if I startled you, miss."
Seconds ticked by as she took note of his shiny black boots, new jeans, silver belt buckle and tan shirt opened at the collar. She studied his face and gazed deeply into his eyes. With her hand in her hair, her fingers wove through the silver-blond strands as if she was fashioning some new upswept hairdo. With her arm raised and bent at the elbow, she tilted her head to one side and gave him thoughtful consideration. The move exposed the delicate softness of her throat. A breathless sigh escaped from her mouth.
That bit of body language was unique to the woman he'd known. Sexy. Not forced. Genuine. A jolt hit him smack between the eyes.
It had to be her. He thought back to that night at the Golden Palace Bar.
"I don't date soldiers," she'd said as he stood by her table.
He'd taken a seat and smiled anyway. "But you'll make an exception for me."
"B-Brett? Is that really you?" The hope in her voice confused him and then another jolt hit. Oh, man, this wasn't possible. "I don't understand," she was saying. "We were told we were told you were dead. Killed in a gun battle. Oh, my God, your aunt Mattie will be so happy. Was there a mix-up? What happened?"
He pulled oxygen into his lungs, then looked away from her puzzled face and squinted against the bright afternoon sunshine. Jerk. He hated himself for the lie, and for the hurt he'd cause when he told her the truth.
"I'm not Brett Applegate," he told the blonde.
She pursed her lips and inclined her head, studying him. "But I remember you. Don't you remember me? I'm Katherine Grady. I go by Kat."
Hell, yeah. He remembered her. But he didn't have a clue why the heck Kat was here, looking gorgeous, in front of the Applegate home.
Silently, he cursed the bet he'd made with Brett Apple-gate. Justin never thought he'd lose an arm-wrestling match to his buddy. He never had before. But damn if Brett hadn't bested him three out of five times right before they'd been selected to accompany a high-powered general to a three-day summit in Washington, D.C. After they served out their mission, the general granted them weekend leave in New York, before they were to head back to their forward operating base in Afghanistan.
The price of the bet? Reversing roles for the weekend.
They'd emptied the contents of their pockets, and good ole Brett had jumped at the chance to live in Justin's skin for a few days. He'd waved Justin's gold credit card in his face and scooped up all seven hundred-dollar bills Justin had dumped onto the bunk. "Gonna have me some fun being you," he'd said, grinning like a fool.
For his part, Justin had blown Brett's spending cash on a bottle of house wine at the hotel and afterward Kat had taken him to her tiny fourth-story walk-up. He'd been looking for a good time. He thought she was, too. They'd clicked. And then things got complicated.
"I remember you, sugar?''
Her eyes softened. "No one else has ever called me that."
Justin winced at the sweet tone in her voice. "My name isn't Brett. I'm Justin Slade and I live about twenty miles north of here. Brett and I served together on a tour of duty in the marines."
Her voice dropped off. "You're Justin Slade?"
"Sunset Ranch, Justin Slade?" He nodded again.
"But, we You told me your name was Brett Apple-gate. You were a marine heading back overseas. You told me all about this place You"
He grimaced. He was the worst kind of heel. He'd taken advantage of a woman's trust, something he'd never done before. He swallowed down regret and then softened his voice. "I lied."
She condemned him with her eyes. He didn't blame her. It was an idiotic bet and a fool thing to do.
Slowly, her hand went to her mouth. Slender fingers covered her lips. She began shaking her head. "Oh no. No, it's not true."
"Maybe we should go inside the house and talk. I'll try to explain. Is Matilda Applegate home?"
She closed her eyes and kept them closed as if she were silently praying.
He spoke firmly. "Kat."
Her eyes popped open and she blinked a few times. She spoke quietly. "We can't go inside."
The front door creaked open and an older woman with hair the color of a sunburst stepped onto the front porch, holding a baby boy dressed in brown corduroy in her arms. The woman moved slowly, but with precision as if she calculated each step she took. Her light blue eyes were the most vital thing about her, painted with black eyeliner and deep-sea blue eye shadow. Blotchy face powder accented rather than hid the wrinkles on her face. But the kindness in her eyes was authentic and aimed straight at him.
"I thought I heard voices. Who have we here?"
The baby took a peek at him and then whipped around to grab at her neck with a death grip, his little legs kicking at her hips. She squeezed him tight, and whispered reassurances in his ear. "Now, now, Connor baby. Don't be afraid."
Kat cleared her throat. "Aunt Mattie, this is Justin Slade."
The woman's brows drew together as she tried to place him. "Slade? The name sounds familiar."
"I was a friend of Brett's. I came here to talk to you."
Katherine Grady knew how to handle a lot of tough situations. She'd grown up the only daughter in an abusive household. She'd moved from one women's shelter to another with her mom, running from a belligerent father and trying her darnedest to keep her mother from falling apart. There was nothing pretty or heroic about living hand to mouth. About never knowing if they'd have to pick up and run or have enough food and shelter for the month.
Kat learned how to survive from early on.
What rattled her more than anything was fear of the unknown. How could she fight something she couldn't see coming?
This was one of those times.
Usually she hid her emotions wellthanks to all that training from her youthbut right now fear tightened her throat and sped up her heart. Her body shook so hard her knees wobbled. Could it be possible? The man she thought was Brett for all this time was really Justin Slade. Gracious. She couldn't wrap her head around the bald-faced lie she'd been told. It was a lot to absorb all at once. But Kat's emotions didn't matter at the moment. Her concern was for Mattie. The older woman couldn't afford a setback in her recovery.
Mattie invited Justin inside and he didn't hesitate to approach the front door. He held the screen open and allowed them to step inside first and then followed behind. The door slammed shut as it was prone to do and Kat jerked, her nerves worn thin by something much bigger than that familiar sound. Funny, how just a few minutes ago, her biggest problem was a tire that needed changing.
But the scene that was about to play out in the parlor of Aunt Mattie's modest home could very well kill her with grief. Kat didn't know how to stop it or protect her from the truth.
"Have yourself a seat, son," Aunt Mattie said. "I'll take a seat, too, if you don't mind. Little Connor here is quite a handful, tiring me out. He's weighing nearly twenty pounds now, isn't that right, Kat?"
Kat's stomach ached. She gave a hesitant nod. Justin waited for both of them to take a seat. Kat perched uneasily on a colorful floral chair and Aunt Mattie lowered herself onto her brushed suede recliner that must have once been a lemony yellow. Justin finally sat on the sofa and set his tan felt hat next to him. He kept darting glances at Connor.
"Pardon the mess," Aunt Mattie said. "Kat here is doing wonders fixing the place up on a scant budget. She's got quite a flair for it, wouldn't you say?"
Justin scanned the room politely. Kat wondered if a man's eye would notice things like handmade pillows in contrasting colors, small scatter rugs that tied the room together and flower vases and pictures placed strategically to enhance the modest three-bedroom home. When Kat had first arrived, with Mattie's illness sapping her strength, the place had been a wreck. In the two months she'd lived here, she'd managed to stage the living spaces to bring new life to the house. Her arrival, or rather Connor's arrival, had brought new life to Matilda Applegate, as well.
"Looks nice and homey," Justin said.
She still couldn't believe this man sitting here being polite to Mattie had lied to her about who he was. Why?
She understood lies to some extent. She'd had to lie her way out of a few tight spots in her life. She could abide them, if it meant keeping your nose clean or protecting someone you loved. But why would Justin Slade lie to her about who he was back then?
Her teeth clamped down so hard, pain shot to her head. Any second now.
"You say you knew my nephew Brett?"
"Yes, ma'am. We met in the marines. When we found out we were practically neighbors, coming from this part of Nevada and all, we got friendly."
Connor was beginning to relax. He turned around in Mattie's arms and plunked his little bottom down in her lap. Tears welled in Kat's eyes. This was a special moment, a brief but monumental span of time when Connor's sweet brown eyes locked onto Justin's for the first time. The gravity of the moment sent Kat's mind spinning.
Her son meeting his father.
"Oh, look, Connor's warming up to you. This is Brett's boy. Going to have his first birthday before you know it."
Kat lowered her eyes, the weight of the situation crashing down on her shoulders. She had to think fast. To find a way to protect Mattie.
"He's your boy?" Justin asked her.
"Yes." Kat rose quickly and moved over to Mattie. "Let me take him, Aunt Mattie. Your arms must be tired from holding him most of the morning."
"Kat was trying to fix the flat," Aunt Mattie explained to Justin. "The roads here are murder on the tires, you know. My arms are getting a bit tweaked. I'm not as young as I used to be," she said as she handed Connor over carefully. "Though there's nothing in this world better than holding our little Connor."
The baby was on his best behavior, not fidgeting as he was prone to do when he was around strangers. Connor clung to Kat's neck and she kissed his soft little cheek before turning to face Justin. "Aunt Mattie is recovering from a heart attack. She took the news of Brett's death very hard."
Aunt Mattie interjected, "I think I would've died, if it hadn't been for Kat and Connor showing up when they did. That little boy was like an angel coming down from heaven to save my life."
Justin rose. His gaze switched back and forth from Connor to Kat. The suspicion she'd known would come lit up his eyes. "Brett never said he had a son."
Aunt Mattie chimed in. "That's because Brett never knew about Connor. Kat came here looking for Brett, to finally tell him about his baby. But it was too late for Connor to meet his daddy. Kat's been living here, taking care of me ever since."
Justin's eyes rounded on her. "You never told Brett he had a son."