His Brother's Family
Cassie Duncan knew it was only a matter of time until Tanner McCord tried to sell her house out from under her. Still, the single mom can't help but be touched by the sacrifices the handsome loner makes for her and her son, even babysitting when she's sick! She knows he's keeping secretsafter all, it runs in his family
Tanner returned to his childhood home in Australia to settle his estranged brother's estatenot fall for the woman who'd borne his brother's son. But one look into Cassie Duncan's blue eyes, and the rancher's heart was lassoed good and tight. He wants to give Cassie everything she's been denied but doing so means confessing the truth about his brother and might ruin their chances at true family
About the Author
Helen Lacey grew up reading Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables and Little House on The Prairie. These childhood classics inspired her to write her first book when she was seven years old, a story about a girl and her horse. She continued to write with the dream of one day being a published author and writing for Harlequin Special Edition is the realization of that dream. She loves creating stories about cowboys and horses and heroine's who get their happily ever after.
Read an Excerpt
Cassie Duncan placed her four-month-old son in his bed and gently rubbed his belly through the pale blue cotton onesie. Oliver's breathing slowed and she watched his tiny chest rise and fall, marveling at the perfect little person who'd come into her life.
If only your daddy was here
But Doug was gone. Killed eight months earlier while on tour in the Middle East, he never got to see his son born. Now it was just the two of them, getting through each day. Cassie adored being a mother and loved Oliver more than she'd imagined she could love anyone. But she was sad that Doug would miss seeing his son grow up. He'd had very little family, just a younger brother in South Dakota he rarely saw. And Crystal Point was a long way from there. With a population of eight hundred, the small Australian beachside town sat at the southernmost point of the Great Barrier Reef. It was the perfect place to raise her childquiet and safea place where she fit in, where she led a valuable life.
She grabbed the baby monitor, flicked on the colored shaded night-light and left the nursery. Mouse hunkered down the hall when he saw her. The one-hundred-and-sixty-pound black-and-white Great Dane always stood point at the end of the hall when she was in the nursery with Oliver. The dog pushed his big head against her leg and Cassie rubbed his neck.
"Feel like a snack?" she asked and kept walking.
Mouse followed her through to the kitchen. She gave him a couple of doggy treats and filled up the kettle. Oliver would stay asleep for a few hours, so she had time to make dinner and watch a movie. She rummaged through the pantry and settled on tinned soup and sourdough toast. The dog climbed into his bed by the door and Cassie set about making her meal.
Friday nights always seemed the quietest somehow. In the old days she would have called her best friends, Lauren and Mary-Jayne, to come around and they would have opened a bottle of wine and eaten cheese and crackers and shared stories about their week. But Lauren was recently engaged and making wedding plans with her fiancé. And Mary-Jayne was locked away in her workshop and wouldn't be around for a week.
And I have Oliver.
Having a baby had changed her priorities. Not that Cassie had ever been much of a party girl. She'd dated Doug for three years before his death and although they hadn't seen much of one another in the last eighteen months, she had stood by her commitment to their relationship. Being involved with a career soldier had been difficult. However, the long absences and constant worry for his safety hadn't altered her feelings. She'd loved him, and now she loved their son.
She cranked the lid off the soup tin, poured it into a saucepan and sliced some bread while she waited for the soup to heat up. The baby monitor was quiet and Cassie relaxed when she sat down at the big scrubbed table and ate her dinner. The house was silent, except for its usual creaks and moans. But she loved the house and had lived in it for most of her life.
When her grandfather had fallen ill four years ago and needed full-time care, the house had been sold to an investment buyer to pay for his care and she had become a tenant in her own home. Of course she was grateful to have been able to stay on and lease the property from the new owner.
The new owner had turned out to be Doug and when he briefly returned from his tour and came around to check on the house, they'd quickly fallen for one another. There weren't fireworks or a rush of crazy heat, but they'd shared something more something lasting. It was grounded in friendship and Cassie would have happily spent her life with him had fate not intervened. But only months after she'd told him she was pregnant Doug was dead, killed by a sniper in a secret operation along with two other soldiers.
She'd been living in the house ever since, paying the rent and utilities, and had begrudgingly started looking for another place to live while waiting for the home she loved to be pulled out from under her and Oliver.
Because the house now belonged to Doug's brother, Tanner McCord. She'd met him twice and on both occasions he'd proven to be the disinterested, brooding loner Doug had described. She knew the tension between the two men went back a long way and whenever she'd asked Doug about it he'd quickly dismissed her questions. Now all she could do was wait until she learned what Tanner planned to do with the house. Eight days earlier she'd received an email. He was coming back to Crystal Point. He wanted to see her. He wanted to talk.
He wants to kick me out of my home
Cassie shuddered. Damn. She should be better prepared. She should have found somewhere else to live. She should have contacted a lawyer again and ascertained whether Oliver had any rights to Doug's estate. Instead, she'd buried her head in the sand, plastered on her regular happy smile and hoped things would work out. Like a naive fool. As always.
She shook off the unease in her blood and finished her meal. Once she'd eaten and washed up, she left the kitchen, checked the baby, gathered her things and headed for the bathroom. Twenty minutes later she was showered, dried and wearing her comfiest gray sweats. By seven she was in front of the television watching a DVD.
But not even her favorite romantic comedy could hold her attention. She'd had a headache all afternoon, amplified by the increasing funk she'd been in since Tanner's email had arrived. She was nervous. On edge and restless at the idea of facing him without Doug by her side. And she felt alone. Something she hadn't truly experienced since her parents had died. Or since her grandfather had gone into the nursing home. Even when she didn't see Doug for months at a time she hadn't labored over being alone. This was something else. Something more. Cassie couldn't figure why the feeling was so intense. Since Oliver's birth she hadn't any time to linger over what she had lost, or the life she'd never have with Doug. But tonight the feelings were acute. Tonight she was lonely.
When her parents had died in a boating accident Cassie had gone to live with her grandfather Neville Duncan. She'd been eight years old and had grieved the loss of her family for a long time. Lauren's folks had helped, and her granddad had done his best. But it wasn't like having a family, a mother and father, of her own. With Doug she'd hoped that together they would make a family. But that wasn't to be. Still, she was determined to tell her son everything she knew about his father. Doug wouldn't be forgotten.
As for Tanner she'd deal with whatever happened. I can make this work. I have to.
It was dark out and Tanner McCord had been sitting in the car for over half an hour. Waiting.
And knowing he should have let the lawyers handle it instead of traveling halfway around the world to see her. They were only connected by her child. Doug's son. The son his brother would never see.
Tanner drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. It had been over two years since he'd seen her. And that was only the second time since she'd become involved with Doug. But now Doug was gone. And Tanner was home to fulfill the unspoken promise he'd made to his brother.
He looked toward the house. A silhouette passed by a window. Tanner's stomach lurched and he sucked in a deep breath. His leg ached and he pressed his palm hard into his left thigh. After months of rehab he could finally walk without that damn stick. The pain was worse when he drove for a length of time, and the five-hour haul from Brisbane to Crystal Point after twenty-plus hours in the air crossing the Pacific had taken its toll. He mostly avoided pain meds in favor of massage and physical therapy, but right now needed something to take his mind off the soreness and maintain his focus. Tanner popped a couple of aspirin and waited for the pain to ease as it usually did when he put pressure on the main fracture line.
There was more movement by the window, followed by a light being switched on in the front room. The big, low-set brick-and-tile home was positioned well back from the road and in the fading dusk he'd noticed how overgrown and unkempt the garden was. Tanner could see the flickering light from the television bouncing shadows off the curtains and he wondered if he should wait until morning before disturbing her.
Instead, he got out, pushing past the pain in his leg, and closed the door. Tanner walked across the curb and stalled in the middle of the driveway. Driving for hours had exaggerated his limp and he pulled his leg forward to force a straight stride. When he reached the door he knocked twice and waited. Seconds later he heard the soft sound of feet padding over floorboards before the door opened back on its hinges.
His stomach rolled again. She was beautiful, as he remembered. Hair the color of treacle, pale blue eyes, porcelain skin and soft, even features. The first time Doug had introduced her to him, Tanner's breath had been sucked from his chest. The second time he was better preparedhe managed a quick visit while Doug was home on leave and had kept his distance from her. And this time this time he had his head screwed on right. He wasn't in Crystal Point to lust over his dead brother's girlfriend.
History would not repeat itself. Not ever again.
She said his name in that soft, breathless way and a familiar jolt of awareness rushed through his blood. He finally drew in some air and spoke. "Hello, Cassandra."
Her gaze narrowed as a huge dog moved around her legs and sniffed the air. The animal eyed him suspiciously and lifted his ears in alert mode. She certainly looked as though she had all the protection she needed. "You're here "
"You got my email?"
"Ah yes but I wasn't expecting you until next week."
"I got an earlier flight," he explained and pressed down the jolt of pain contracting his thigh. "I'm sorry if I startled you. I probably should have called first."
She looked f lustered and a little put out, and guilt twitched Tanner behind his shoulder blades. He should have waited until morning. Or he should have let the lawyers handle it.
"No, it's fine," she said and nodded. "You can come inside."
When she opened the screen and stepped back Tanner moved through the doorway. She closed both doors behind him and suggested they go into the living room. The dog trailed her and Tanner hung back for a moment. He finally followed her down the hall and remained by the doorway when she entered the front room.
Tanner watched her. She looked cautious. On edge. Out of sorts.
The room had altered a little since the last time he'd been in it. There was some new furniture, new rug, different paintings on the walls. There was a fireplace with one of those fake heaters and a photo on the mantel caught his attention. Doug. In uniform. The face seemed as recognizable as it did unfamiliar. When he was young he'd worshipped Doug.
But things had a way of changing.
"That's quite an animal you have there," he said.
"Mouse," she replied and ushered the dog to sit on a rug near the fireplace. The animal gave Tanner a wary onceover before curling on the mat.
She smiled a little. "The idea was to make him seem less intimidating."
When the dog was settled, Tanner crossed the threshold. "How are you?"
She nodded. "Fine."
"And theyour son?"
"Oliver," she said, as though he didn't know the child's name. "He's asleep."
He took a few steps and noticed how her gaze fell to his uneven gait. She knew about the accident that had laid him up in hospital for over a month. It was the reason he hadn't made it to Doug's funeral.
"And are you well?" he asked and moved behind the heavy sofa.
"I said I was." She looked him over. "More the point, how are you?"
Tanner tapped his thigh. "Better. Good as new."
Her brows came up. "Really?"
He shrugged. "Maybe not exactly like new. But I'm getting there."
"I should have called," she said quietly. "But after Doug you know and the baby came and by then I didn't have time to think about anything but Oliver."
He understood. And he hadn't expected her to call. They weren't friends. They weren't anything. She was Doug's woman. The mother of his brother's child. It didn't matter that her blue eyes and soft smile invaded his dreams. Wanting her was pointless. He'd never act on it, never give in to it. Never put himself through the inevitable humiliation of her rejection. Staying in South Dakota and living his life far away from her and Doug had been the sensible option.
"It's okay, Cassandra. You don't have to"
"Cassie," she said, correcting him. "No one calls me Cassandra."
Tanner lingered over the thought. He'd always called her that. Funny how he'd never picked up that she didn't like it. "All right.Cassie."
She smiled a little and sat on the sofa. "Would you like coffee? Tea?"
"No, thank you."
"You can sit down if you want."
He nodded and moved farther into the room. She watched him intently as he eased into the opposite chair and stretched out his left leg. She couldn't have missed the way he favored the one side when he walked.
"Are you in pain?" she asked.
Tanner shrugged. "It was a long trip."
The suspicion in her gaze didn't abate. "You said in your email that you wanted to talk. So, what did you want to talk about?"
In normal circumstances it might not have sounded like a fraught, loaded question. But nothing about the situation was normal. And they both knew it.
"Don't look so wary, Cassie. I would have been here eight months ago if it hadn't been for the accident. I finally got the all clear to travel and came as soon as I could."
"For what?" she asked quietly, but she was clearly on edge. "Doug's dead. Anything that needs to be sorted could be done through lawyers."
Silence stretched between them like frayed elastic. She doesn't want me here. He ignored her mention of lawyers. There was time to get to all of that. "You're right," he said, consciously keeping his voice light. "Doug is gone. But his son is very much alive."
Her pale eyes widened. "You came to see Oliver?"
Tanner sucked in a heavy breath. "Because he's the only family that I have."
Cassie almost choked out a sob the way he said the word. She longed for Oliver to have a family. But this man was a stranger. Unknown. Someone she'd met a couple of times and who had always managed to unnerve her even though they'd barely spoken. She wasn't sure why, but knew it wasn't simply a reaction to his handsome face. There was something about Tanner something that almost felt familiar as if they were connected somehow. It was stupid, of course. There was no connection no common link other than Doug.
Still he was extraordinarily handsomedark brown hair, eyes the color of warm toffee and he possessed a strong, muscular frame. Features that made him impossible to ignore. He was taller than Doug had been, and leaner in the waist and hips and broader through the shoulders. He was the kind of man who'd look good in jeans, chambray shirt and cowboy boots, or a suit and tie.
Tanner McCord was gorgeous, no doubt about it. But she wasn't about to get caught up in his good looks. She took a deep breath and spoke. "I didn't realize family was so important to you."
It was a direct dig and he obviously knew it. "Doug and I had different lives," he said and stretched back against the chair. "Which doesn't mean we didn't care about each other."
"I know how Doug felt about you," she replied carefully. "He told me how he looked after you when your parents died."
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