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Nick Bluestone waited at the airport, trying not to pace. He had four weeks to enforce his plan, the mission he'd agreed to carry out.
The mission? Nick frowned. This wasn't a covert military operation. This was a heart-wrenching promise he'd made to his brother. A Comanche vow.
He took a rough breath and thought about Elaina, the woman he'd pledged to marry. He hadn't seen her since the summer they'd buried Grant, the summer they'd stood side by side and mourned Nick's twin. And now, two years later, she had finally agreed to visit him in Oklahoma, to bring his niece for Christmas.
Nick released the air in his lungs. A holiday visit. That wasn't the half of it. Elaina had no idea that he intended to propose. But then, how could she? He'd been keeping the vow a secret, preparing himself for the right moment to tell her.
Scanning the passengers entering the terminal, he spotted her. Instantly his pulse quickened. He barely knew Elaina. Sure, he liked her, but he hadn't allowed himself to look too closely, to admire her for anything other than being his brother's devoted wife.
But damn it, there she was, tall and shapely, with a shoulder-length sweep of chestnut haira woman much too striking not to notice.
Even dressed in blue jeans, she reminded him of a lady, a true lady, the sort a noble knight would lose his heart to. Was that what had first attracted Grant to her? The graceful beauty? The whisper of sensuality?
I'm supposed to protect my brother's ladylove, he thought nervously. Pledge my life, my tarnished honor to her. And seeing Elaina, watching her enter his rough-hewn world, made that vow seem more real.
Shifting his focus, Nick schooled his anxiety and studied his twelve-year-old niece instead. Lexie was taller than the last time he'd seen her, but still small for her age. A baseball cap rode low on her forehead, shading big, dark eyes. With her baggy jeans and oversize T-shirt, she looked more like a brooding little boy than a troubled young girl.
She glanced up, and he smiled. Her face was lean and angular, her skin smooth and soft. Oh, yeah, he thought.
She was female, all right. Sweet, stubborn and confusing as hell.
He moved forward to greet her, keeping Elaina in his peripheral vision. "Hey, Lexie."
She reached out, and he hugged her naturally. Lexie was his godchild, the little girl who lived in his heart. She was all he had left of Grant, and he intended to keep her safe and warm.
He lifted the brim of her hat and grinned. Her hair, nearly as short as his, brushed her neck in a simple, blunt style. Apparently Lexie still didn't fuss or frill over her hair, a fact that used to amuse her daddy. No ribbons and bows for Grant's baby girl. She preferred baseball cards to Barbie dolls and barrettes.
And then there was Elaina, rife with feminine curves, in a champagne-colored sweater, slim-fitting jeans and a pair of sleek suede boots. And her eyes, he thought. They were as blue as the brightest lapis imaginable.
Ironically, the name fit. Something he'd never noticed before.
"Hi," Nick said to her. "How was your flight?"
"Fine. A little tiring." She met his gaze, and then shifted those blue eyes quickly away. "We had a layover in Texas."
"Yeah. Traveling can wear a person out." Since they didn't embrace, he relieved her of a carry-on bag and tried to act casual. Apparently she didn't like looking him in the eye, but he figured his resemblance to Grant unnerved her. These days, it unnerved him, too. "Let's head over to baggage claim."
They stood quietly with the other passengers and waited for the luggage to appear. And while Lexie adjusted her backpack and Elaina studied the empty turntable, Nick's thoughts drifted back in time.
Two years before, he'd visited Grant in Los Angeles, a trip he rarely made. The Comanche brothers looked alike, but their lifestyles had been worlds apart. Grant had left home to pursue a successful corporate career in California, while Nick, a saddle maker, remained close to his roots.
So to celebrate Nick's last night in the city, they'd eaten dinner at a steak house, then stopped by a sports bar to shoot a few rounds of pool. Although neither had consumed more than a few beers, they were still feeling boyish and rowdy, ribbing each other like a couple of kids.
"You miss this shot," Nick had cajoled, "and I get to take that jet-propelled machine of yours for a spin. You know, the one masquerading as a car."
Grant had flashed a roguish grin and eyed the eight ball, calling it in the corner pocket. "Then I don't intend to miss, bro. Because I've seen the way you drive."
He didn't miss, and Nick didn't end up piloting the Porsche. It was Grant who had driven later that night, Grant who had been gunned down in the midst of a car-jacking.
As a familiar pain coiled in the pit of his stomach, Nick squinted at the baggage-claim ticket in Elaina's hand.
He could still recall that moment, the instant his brother lay dying in his arms. He'd struggled to stem the wound, to stop the warm rush of blood that had flowed from Grant's chest.
A part of him knew he couldn't help the other man, but another part refused to give up. He couldn't live without his brother. In spite of the choices that separated them, they still shared the same heart, the same soul. There were times they could read each other's minds, feel each other's emotions.
And on that dark summer night, Nick had felt his twin die. But not before Grant had whispered the words Nick would never forget.
"Take care of my family the old way. Be the Comanche I should have been. Teach my daughter protect my wife ."
The old way. A dying man's last request. A living man's biggest fear. Grant had asked Nick to take his placebecome a husband and father to the woman and child he'd left behind.
Nick blinked at the sound of Elaina's voice. "What?"
"Oh, sure. Just tell me which suitcases are yours." He squared his shoulders, his thoughts still spinning.
Marrying Elaina and raising Lexie was a responsibility he'd been battling for two years.
He lifted a leather satchel, wondering about the path that lay ahead. Would Elaina actually agree to marry him? And what about his involvement in Grant's death? She didn't know about the mistake Nick had made, the vital error that had ultimately cost Grant his life.
No one knew. Not even the L.A. cops who'd taken the report. Nick still kept the truth locked inside, the pain and guilt that followed him each day.
Nick's house was one of those quaint country structures with an enormous porch, a graveled driveway and grass and trees everywhere. It was more or less what Elaina had expected, a little off the beaten path, with neighbors scattered here and there.
"Your dad and I grew up on this property," Nick told Lexie as he unlocked the door. "But I tore down the old house and built a new one. It was pretty primitive before."
Lexie only nodded. After hugging Nick at the airport, she'd withdrawn, reverting back to her detached self.
He carried the heavier luggage inside, with Elaina and Lexie carting smaller pieces.
"You brought a lot of stuff," he commented.
"Four weeks is a lengthy vacation," Elaina responded, worrying about what she'd gotten herself into. Lexie didn't look any happier, even if she kept studying her uncle beneath her lashes.
Grant's senseless murder had destroyed Lexie, each year going from bad to worse. And to top it off, her best friend had moved three months ago, leaving the young girl feeling lost and lonely. Elaina sighed. She was an elementary-school teacher, a woman experienced in meeting the needs of a wide range of children, yet she couldn't help her own daughter. How ironic was that?
She had even taken a leave of absence from her job, but being a stay-at-home mom hadn't made a difference. Then again, Lexie appeared to be craving a paternal-type attachment. Which was the reason Elaina had finally agreed to come to Oklahoma. Recently, Lexie had expressed an interest in visiting her uncle.
Elaina studied Nick, wondering what sort of person he really was. She didn't know much about him. In truth, he'd always seemed a little wilda man with a rough, frayed-denim edge.
She hoped they weren't going to spend the next four weeks struggling to make conversation. Whenever Nick had visited them in L.A., Grant had been the one entertaining his brother. Aside from the days following Grant's death, this was the first time Elaina or Lexie had ever been alone with Nick.
But Elaina had to give him credit for trying. He'd invited them to stay with him during summer and spring breaks, and since those attempts had failed, he'd resorted to Christmas.
He showed them to their rooms, and then motioned to the burgers they'd picked up at a drive-through on the way in. "Ready for dinner?" he asked.
She nodded. "Sure."
"We can eat in here," he said, indicating the living room. "I'm not fussy about stuff like that. But I guess that's pretty obvious."
Both Elaina and Lexie managed a smile. Remnants from Nick's last meal sat on a plate above the television, as if he'd forgotten about it until now.
As they gathered around the coffee table, sipping sodas and dipping fries into pools of ketchup, Elaina assessed her surroundings.
The room was rough-hewn and masculine, with coarse furnishings and an Old West theme. A set of buckhorn candleholders sat on a sturdy oak bookcase, and a rope-and-rawhide chair was angled in the corner. A lambskin throw decorated the sofa, along with a few Western-printed pillows.
The end table was a bit cluttered, newspapers and magazines piled in an uneven stack. Elaina had the urge to tidy up. It was her nature, she supposed, the domestic side of herself she couldn't deny.
Glancing out the window, she caught sight of a country setting, of dusk darkening a winter sky.
Grant and Nick had grown up on this rugged property, but Nick accepted it as his home. The man was a saddle maker, an Indian living like a cowboy. Grant had preferred designer suits, whereas Nick appeared to favor worn-out Wranglers. How could they look so much alike, yet be so different from each other?
Elaina reached for her burger, wishing Nick didn't have Grant's face. Here she was, two years after her husband's death, comparing the brothers and imagining Grant as he had been.
She knew Lexie did that, too. And Nick, with his jet-black hair, determined jaw and strong cheekbones, was a reminder of what they had lost.
Was coming here a mistake? she asked herself. Was Lexie placing too much importance on her father's twin?
Nick turned on the TV, and Elaina let out the breath she'd been holding. Hopefully, she and Lexie would get through this evening painlessly, watching cable for a while, then retreating to unpack and get a much-needed night's rest.