Kelly Michaels was fooled oncewhen a sexy stranger seduced the socks off her. It wasn't until the rancher left her Texas town that she discovered he was Hollywood heartthrob Jace Comptonand she was pregnant with his baby. Now he's back, and Kelly won't be fooled twice.
Jace bought a local ranch to escape the rat race. But when he runs into Kelly and finds out she's had his childthat settles it. He's ready to make Kelly his, no matter how many demons from the past are standing in his way
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Kelly Michaels slowed the car as she neared the twelve-foot-high black wrought-iron gates banked by native stone walls on either side. A bronze plaque on the left welcomed her to the C Bar Ranch. She stretched to reach the keypad and entered the code Don Honeycutt, the Realtor, had provided.
With a resounding click, the gates swung open, separating the giant C set in the center. She followed the long winding drive flanked by centuries-old oak trees towering over lush green pastures. She pulled around to the staff entrance. The home was enormous. It was more mansion than typical ranch house. But new construction was generally a breeze to clean. Gathering the implements out of the trunk, she went inside.
Her instructions were to clean two bedrooms and adjoining baths upstairs plus the den, office, foyer and kitchen downstairs. She should be able to wrap this up in time to get ready for the annual music festival and dance that evening. The generous pay she earned occasionally cleaning new homes for the local Realtor was more than worth the effort. It had once been her only income, but even after she landed a job consistent with her field of study, she'd held on to this one and the financial bonus it offered.
She started on the second-floor master suite, working her way downstairs. Some furniture had been delivered. New bedding and pillows lay on the mattresses. Kelly quickly and efficiently put everything in order. An interior designer would probably complete the rooms in accordance with the new owner's preferences.
She loved the smell and freshness of a new home. Holidays in this house would be amazing. A turkey roasting in the oven while pumpkin and coconut pies cooled on the dark granite counters. The aroma of spices and home-baked bread filling the air. She could imagine laughter and teasing banter filling the great space while children played hide-and-seek around a huge tree. She envied the family who would live here. At least, she hoped it was a family. The gossip around town said the old ranch had been purchased by an out-of-state corporation for employee retreats. It would be a shame if no one actually lived in this beautiful home.
A couple hours later, while rinsing the last of the soap from the kitchen sink, she heard the door in the utility room open and close. Must be Don checking on her progress. She smiled, knowing she'd completed the house, just as requested.
The breath caught in her throat and all outward motion stopped. The voice did not belong to Don Honeycutt. Her heart slammed against the walls of her chest as denial overwhelmed her mind. It couldn't be. Bracing herself against the counter, she turned and stared incredulously at the man standing less than four feet away.
"Jace." His name came out a whisper, a testament to the pure shock pummeling her from every direction. She blinked her eyes, willing her mind to convey it was only an illusion.
But the illusion was very real.
In the year since she'd seen him, he'd changed very little. His rugged good looks hadn't diminished. If anything, he appeared even more handsome than before, something she wouldn't have thought possible. The deep line of his jaw was smooth now, missing the bearded shadow he'd had before. His dark hair was cut several inches shorter. The tiny scar was still visible, the only imperfection of full lips that could widen into a devilish grin showing perfect white teeth, a smile irresistible to most everyone, male or female, young or old.
Kelly swallowed hard. She knew the touch of those lips. A man in his prime, he took extraordinary care to stay in top physical condition. It was, after all, part of his job. Part of who he was. She hadn't known it before, but she certainly knew it now.
"What are you doing here?" His deep, graveled voice mirrored her surprise, sending goose bumps over her skin.
With a wet sponge in one hand and a can of powdered cleanser in the other, she thought the answer should be obvious.
"I might ask you the same question." But she feared she already knew the answer. The giant C on the front gate apparently stood for Compton. Suddenly the huge mansion took on the dimensions of a shoe box as the walls came crashing in. "You bought this ranch?" She needed to hear him confirm her worst fears.
"Yeah. I did."
Her heart dropped to her knees. "I I've just finished. I'll get out of your way."
She grabbed the mop, broom and bucket of cleaning paraphernalia and without another glance in his direction, headed for the door, her mind spinning.
"Kelly, wait. You don't have to"
She ignored him and all but ran through the side door. Why would Jace Compton, a man with the world at his fingertips, move to this tiny Texas town?
The outside lamp over the side porch provided dim light against the growing darkness. She tossed the cleaning supplies inside the car, not caring where they landed. Her hands shook so severely it took three tries to insert the key into the ignition of the twenty-year-old Buick. It responded in kind, quivering equally as badly as her hands while the engine struggled to engage. After she'd made several attempts and repeated silent pleas to start, it became clear the old car wasn't going anywhere.
This couldn't be happening.
Her cell phone lay on the seat next to her, but even if it found a signal there was no one to call. By now her friends were at the music festival along with most of the county. It was the single largest event of the year in their small community, and she would not spoil their evening even though it was a long walk home. If only Mrs. Jenkins, her babysitter, could still drive. She had a nagging fear in the pit of her stomach that this downward spiral had not yet reached rock bottom.
Resting her forehead against the steering wheel, she closed her eyes, giving in to the memories flooding her mind, to the sharp pain once again slicing her heart into tiny pieces. The best and the worst wrapped up in one package. And the name on the label was Jace Compton.
When she'd first tried to reach him at the cell number he'd provided, she got at a voice mail message that Jace Comptonnot Jack Campbell, the name he'd given her when they metwas out of the country. And the mailbox was full. Who was Jace Compton? A call out to the ranch where he'd claimed he worked provided the answer. The man to whom she'd given her heart, body and soul, the man who'd said she was so special he never wanted to let her go, was not Jack Campbell, the ranch hand. He was Jace Compton, an award-winning actor and multi-millionaire living in California, having some fun at her expense. The ranch foreman had given her another number to try, but it was disconnected.
As the memories of that day surfaced once again, shame rolled over her in a mind-numbing wave just as it had for months after she'd learned the truth. She'd been so stupid. Her initial awareness that he looked familiar had been easily dismissed with a "Yeah. I get that a lot." No doubt he would have had a pat answer even if she'd asked more pointedly. He'd set out to seduce her and she'd fallen hard. She'd wanted to believe him, to trust him, so any suspicions that he might not be who he claimed were ignored.
Weeks after he'd left, when she finally learned his true identity, it seemed as if his picture was everywhere. Photos and headlines depicting the wild beach parties, shocking affairs with married women and his playboy lifestyle in general headlined the rag sheets at the grocery store checkout lines and the celebrity programs on television.
She'd finally managed to track down his manager, who had been clear and threatening. She meant nothing to Mr. Compton. They'd had a fling. So what? Jace had lots of flings. Unless she was prepared for a court battle over custodial rights, which Jace would assuredly win, she should take the manager's advice and handle the situation herself. Numbly, Kelly had hung up the phone. She hadn't slept that night. Or the next. She'd just sat in the little wooden chair in her bedroom and stared at nothing while her mind bounced between disbelief and utter devastation.
Nine months later, as she lay in the hospital bed praying for her baby to survive the complications of the birth, one of the hospital volunteers brought Kelly a magazine to read. On the front cover, the charismatic, drop-dead gorgeous Jace Compton had again been named Bachelor of the Year. The handsome face seemed to mock her as the tears spilled over and ran down her face.
Why had he come back?
After a year she thought she'd finally put it all behind her. The tears and sleepless nights, the regrets and countless waves of humiliation as time after time her mind relived how easily she'd fallen for his deception. Yet at the same time, despite the lies, the yearning for his touch refused to go away. The memories of his incredible smile fading to a look of serious intent; the knowing glint in his eyes seconds before his lips covered hers, taking her fully, deeply, until she never wanted him to let her go. His powerful arms holding her, his hard body locked to hers, his hot breath and deep voice teasing, whispering sinful things in her ear, tempting her in ways she'd never imagined, always leaving her gloriously satisfied yet wanting more.
Apparently, he hadn't had the same sentiments. If those thoughts ever entered his head, he'd quickly pushed them away. From the minute he'd boarded the plane back to California, she'd become a distant memory. To him it had just been a vacation in the north Texas ranching community with her supplying a few fringe benefits on the side.
Two raps on the car window brought her back to the here and now. Determined to keep her anger at bay, she pushed open the door and Jace took a step back. Standing at a height of well over six feet, he was wearing well-worn jeans that hugged long, muscular legs. His left arm rested on the door frame while his right settled on the roof, effectively trapping her within the boundary of his heavy arms. Getting out of the car brought her within mere inches of the hard wall of his chest. Muscles rippled under the ash-gray T-shirt, the sleeves stretching to accommodate thick biceps.
Kelly didn't want to be this close to him. She didn't want to look into his eyes, but his large stature blocked everything else as if he was purposely giving her no choice. Finally, she looked up, their gazes locked, and for an instant, time stopped. It was still there. In the deep green depths a flicker of the raw passion that once bound them together with such intensity, a passion that slam-dunked any rational thought into nonexistence.
The scent of expensive cologne surrounded her. In spite of the months of heartache, some small part of her still yearned for his touch, which was nothing short of insanity. What she needed was for him to disappear. Again.
"Please step back and let me pass." Her voice, raw with unreleased emotion, held fierce determination. He did as she asked and dropped his arms to his side. "I'll have the car off your property as soon as possible."
Without a backward glance, Kelly took off down the driveway on foot.
"Don't you have a phone? Someone you can call?"
She ignored him and increased her pace.
"You want to use mine?" She heard him mutter a curse.
Her complete focus was to get off this property and away from him as fast as possible. Her mind was still reeling from the fact that he was here. He'd bought land and built a large house, usually an indication of permanency. The thought did nothing to brighten her spirits. Somehow she should have prepared for this even though logic was screaming how could you have known? But he had friends in the area. He'd been staying with them when they first met. He'd commented many times that he loved the general region. Why had she never considered the possibility that he would come back? She was an idiot. And now she was going to pay for it.
She didn't hear the truck on the concrete driveway until Jace pulled up next to her.
"Kelly, you can't walk all the way to town. It has to be close to six or seven miles and it's almost dark."
Hearing him so close once again still had the same effect. Her body came to life as irrational hunger for him ran rampant. She clenched her teeth and pulled the evening air deep into her lungs as tears of resentment burned her eyes. She refused to let them fall. He was right about it getting dark. And he'd guessed right about the distance. But she kept walking. She'd be every kind of fool to climb inside that truck.
In spite of her refusal to stop, he continued to roll along next to her.
"Kelly, get in the truck and let me take you home."
"No. Thank you."
The tall gates opened as she reached the end of his property. She went through them and cut to the left onto the white-rock county road. The gravel made it harder to walk, but she refused to slow her pace. The Bar H Ranch was just a couple of miles away. Shea, her husband, Alec, or one of their ranch hands would give her a ride home. In hindsight, she should have called, but her only thought was to get away from Jace. Surely everyone hadn't gone to the festival. But if they had, she would sit on the porch and wait.
Why did Jace have to come back to Calico Springs? It was a small community where everybody knew one another. Eventually someone would tell him about Kelly Michaels and the baby who almost died when he was born four months ago. And Jace would know. He would do the math and figure out the baby was his. Another wave of panic slammed into her. What was she going to do? What could she do?
The iron gates clanged shut and she realized he was no longer following her. Apparently, he'd only driven to the end of his driveway and turned back. Good enough. The farther away he stayed the better. Taking a deep breath, she willed her heart to slow its pace.
The consequences of Jace finding out about Henry were beyond comprehension. She had to steel herself against the urge to break into a dead run to more quickly get home to her baby. Regardless of how much money he had and how well he could lie, Jace was not getting custody, no matter what she had to do or where she had to go.
The sun had set, darkening the sky to deep purple. Shadows of the trees and tall grass along the road faded into the overall darkness of the landscape. She wished for a flashlight. Even though the road was still easy to distinguish from the surroundings, the creatures that might slither out to soak up the last of the afternoon warmth were not.
The thought brought her to a heightened sense of awareness. A wrong step might land her in a world of trouble and there was no one in shouting distance if she needed help. If anything happened to her, who would care for Henry?
Right now, her baby should be enjoying his bath before going to sleep thanks to the wonderful woman who kept him while Kelly worked. Because of the festival, no one expected her home early. She swallowed back the touch of alarm. Think positive. Once she reached the Bar H Ranch she'd be home free.
As if to dispute that optimistic thought, lightning flashed across the sky followed by deep, rolling thunder. Kelly groaned, not daring to think this night could get any worse.
Jace Compton took in a deep breath of frustration, his jaw muscles working overtime. He couldn't believe Kelly had been in his house. Cleaning it, no less. How bizarre was that? He'd hoped he could find her if he moved to Calico Springs. But he never considered she'd be in the house, and he wasn't prepared for the immediate anger and the glaring gaze shooting beams of blue-green fire in his direction.
Apparently, she'd found out he'd lied about his identity when he was here before. He hoped she would give him a chance to explain. He'd had twenty-five precious days on a neighboring ranch to kick back, relax and be himself, just a guy who'd grown up on the south side of Chicago. The last thing he wanted was someone to discover his identity. Over the years he'd become proficient at staying well under the radar. He'd had no idea when they first met that their relationship would develop into something so much more.
Kelly had accepted that he was a cowhand from a nearby ranch, and there had never been a right time to tell her differently. In hindsight he hadn't wanted to take a chance on putting a wedge between them and that special something they'd found in each other. It was a timeless journey where they were the only two people in the world. It was perfect. When she returned his kisses, he'd known she was kissing him, the regular guy, not the wealthy celebrity. It was a damn good feeling. When the time came to leave, he wrestled with his conscience, wanting to tell Kelly the truth. Finally he decided to wait until he returned to Calico Springs. He hadn't expected the four-month interim period he'd planned to expand to over a year.
On the outside, the Kelly he remembered had changed, and those changes immediately had his libido sitting up and taking notice. The curves of her body were decidedly more feminine, more mature, more alluring than those of the model-thin young woman he remembered. She exuded health and considerably more sex appeal than he recalled, making him wonder how he'd ever torn himself away. The long blond locks that used to flow free and silky around the delicate features of her face were pulled to the back of her head in a ponytail, giving her face a different, intensely alluring quality, accenting the almond shape of her eyes. Jace had never seen eyes that color. They were the same brilliance and shade as the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. Only tonight, instead of containing a welcoming sparkle, they'd reflected more than a small trace of annoyance when she stared at him as if the devil himself had come to life.
While he'd anticipated she would be a bit perturbed if she learned he'd lied about his identity, he didn't expect the high level of animosity she'd shown today. Was she angry because he'd lied or was it because she'd missed an opportunity to gain some of the wealth? Thinking of Kelly in that light didn't sit well. At all.
Some people thought they'd found the proverbial pot of gold when they caught his attention, a fact that galled Jace to his core. People always wanted something, whether it was money or five minutes worth of fame. Making action films was his job. Not who he was. He hated the phony facade he had to maintain, and the ridiculously implausible stories he had to validate all for the sake of keeping his name in the media, all to keep the publicity going. Finding someone who liked him for himself was a rarity. He hoped Kelly would understand. He really hoped she would.
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