It had always been Mac and Jenny
Their marriage had been forged by shared dreams--raising babies on their Texas ranch--and shared troubles--those haunting Mac, the town sheriff. But they'd never doubted they'd be together. Then Mac was killed.
But five long years later, when new rumblings of an old problem stir along the border, into town rides Matt Dawson. His rugged face and gentle hands reach a place in Jenny only Mac knew. Who is this man, and why does something in Jenny welcome him home?
About the Author
Six-time RITA finalist and two-time RITA Award-winner Gayle Wilson never dreamed of becoming a romance novelist. She was too busy being a teacher of gifted children, a wife and a mother. She was always, however, a compulsive romance reader who loved to escape the stresses of modern life by retreating into a good book. As an English and history teacher, it was probably inevitable that she try her hand at writing a historical romance in her "spare" time. That first book sold to the Harlequin Historical line and became a RITA finalist for Best First Book in 1995. Gayle has since written a total of thirty-seven novels and three novellas for Harlequin. She is currently writing single title romantic suspense for the Harlequin imprint HQN.
Since her first RITA nomination, Gayle has been a RITA finalist in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2004. She won the RITA, romance's most prestigious award, in 2000 for that year's Best Romantic Suspense Novel and in 2004 for the Best Romantic Novella. Her books have garnered over fifty other awards and nominations, including the Daphne du Maurier Awards for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense and the Dorothy Parker International Reviewer's Choice Award for Outstanding Series Romance.
You can write to Gayle at PO Box 3277, Hueytown, Alabama, or visit her web site. She loves to hear from readers.
Read an Excerpt
"You going to the wedding?" Chase McCullar asked his sister-in-law. His blue eyes were directed downward toward the coffee cup he held, rather than at Jenny, and his voice was almost innocent of inflection.
"Of course," Jenny said, glancing at him over her shoulder. "Aren't you?"
"You think I'll get an invitation?"
"I think a better question might be, do you want one?"
"What makes you think I wouldn't want an invitation?"
She laid the dishcloth she'd been using on the counter beside the sink and turned around to face him. Chase was sitting at her kitchen table, a table that had been in his family for three generations. He must have eaten tens of thousands of meals at its scarred wooden surface. Maybe that was why he looked so right sitting there, as if he still belonged here, living in this house instead of the one he had built on his half of the McCullar land.
Or maybe he looked so right, she acknowledged, because he always reminded her of Mac. They even had the same way of sitting, forearms on the table and broad shoulders slightly hunched, both hands wrapped around a mug, as if savoring against their fingers the warmth of the coffee it held.
She banished that memory as she had so many others in the past few weeks. She had even dreamed about Mac last night, dreamed about him making love to her, and that hadn't happened in a very long time.
There had been too much upheaval lately, too many disturbances in her usually placid existence, she supposed. The kidnapping of Chase's daughter and his belated marriage to her mother, Samantha Kincaid. Rio's return from prison. Doc Horn's brutal murder.
Apparently those things, as unlikely as it seemed, had somehow rekindled the memories of those nearly perfect days with Mac. Or maybe seeing Chase and Samantha finally together had made her remember her own marriage. Or perhaps that had been triggered by the way Rio looked at Anne Richardson, the two of them sitting at this very kitchen table, whatever had been in Rio's black eyes so much like the way Mac used to look at her. Or, at least, she amended, the way she always remembered his look.
Most things were better replayed in memory than they had been in actuality. The reality of long-ago events faded, and the remembrance of them had a tendency to become more perfect with the passage of time, she reminded herself, trying to be fair to Trent. Anne Richardson's brother, Trent, was the man she was fortunate enough to have in love with her now. A good man who wanted to marry her. A man who deserved not to have to fight against all those perfect memories.
Not that she minded having only good memories of her marriage, of course. However, she now admitted that savoring those had prevented her from moving on, from getting on with the business of living her life, and she was determined to change that. She had loved Mac McCullar with every fiber of her being, but Mac was dead. He had been dead for almost five years, and she knew it was time for her to begin living again.
She remembered that she had once accused Chase of doing thatof trying to crawl down into that grave with Mac. And instead she had discovered that she was the one who had been guilty of that sin. Once she had had the courage to make that admission, to face what her life had become, she had decided it was time to do something about it.
She realized suddenly that Chase was waiting for her answer, his blue eyeseyes that were just like Mac's studying her face as she stood, lost in memory and regret.
"You and Rio haven't exactly been " She hesitated, searching for the right word, thinking about the strange relationship that existed between the half brothers.
"Not exactly bosom buddies," Chase suggested caustically.
"Not exactly brothers," she countered. "At least you haven't acted like brothers."
"I thought he killed Mac. At least had a part in Mac's death. How did you want me to treat him?"
"You thought?" she asked, emphasizing the past tense, which was, to her, the pertinent part of that statement. "But you don't think that anymore?"
"Hell, Jenny " Chase began, and then he hesitated. "Sometimes even I don't know what I believe anymore." He shook his head, eyes lowering again to the steaming coffee. "It just doesn't " He shook his head again.
"Feel right to hate Rio any longer? Or to blame him for Mac's death?" Jenny suggested.
Chase looked up. "You think I was wrong about that."
"Yes," she said simply.
Chase's mouth tightened. It would be hard for him to make that admission, she knew. Almost as hard as it had been for her to make the unwanted one about her own life that she'd recently made.
"If that's true," Chase said, "then he probably hates me."
Rio had tried to warn his half brother about what was going to happen to Mac. He had ridden across the river to tell Chase about a snatch of drunken conversation he'd overheard in a Mexican cantina. Only, he had made that ride the same night Mac's truck had exploded, and the two events had become inextricably linked in Chase's mind.
Chase hadn't believed Rio's claim that his mission that night had been a warning. Instead, he had interpreted his bastard half brother's words as threat and had viewed Rio as the messenger of whoever had killed Mac. In the months following the murder, Chase had poured every ounce of his energy into seeing that Rio Delgado was punished for his part in that crime.
"You cost him five years of his life," Jenny acknowledged. "If he is innocent, as he's always claimed "
"Then the wrong man got punished. And whoever killed Mac got away with murder," Chase added bitterly. "I didn't stop looking for them, Jenny. I always thought something would turn up. I never believed Rio was the mastermind. I thought he was just their damn messenger boy."
"But he was the only one of them you could identify."
Jenny understood all Chase's motives in pursuing Rio. She had always understood them. She, too, had wanted somebody punished, but knowing Rio now, she had gradually come to realize that he hadn't had anything to do with what had happened.
"Buck told me nothing else has ever come to light about that night," Chase said. "There was never any indication that anybody was transporting drugs through this county. Or had even been planning to."
Buck Elkins had been Mac's deputy as well as his friend. He had been appointed sheriff after Mac's death and had thoughtfully kept Jenny informed about the county's progress, or in this case, its lack of progress, until she had finally asked him not to make any further reports to her about the investigation. There seemed no point in constantly being told that nothing else had been uncovered about her husband's murder.
"Rio doesn't seem to think too much of Buck's detective skills," Jenny reminded her brother-in-law.
"Couldn't find his ass with both hands," Chase said, repeating his half brother's colorful assessment. Unconsciously, his lips moved, almost into a smile.
"Maybe Rio's right," Jenny said, "but I know Buck tried. Mac was his friend."
"Elkins thinks Mac was wrong."
"Ab out what? "
"About everything. About the drugs."
"Somebody approached Mac," Jenny said, remembering, almost against her will, the argument they had had that night. The night Mac had died. "Somebody made him an offer."
"Mac didn't give me any details. Or anyone else, apparently. Not even Buck."
"He didn't have time. He would have told you. That's why he asked you to come down here that weekend. And he had promised to contact the DEA. Officially, I mean. He promised me that night."
"And instead Hell, Jenny, we're no closer than we were five years ago to knowing what really happened."
The frustration she heard in his voice had played a role, she knew, in Chase's determination to make certain that Rio, at least, paid for his part in his half brother's death.
"And in the meantime," he continued, his tone containing a thread of self-castigation now, "I got my half brother sent to prison for a crime neither of us believes anymore that he had anything to do with."
"Have you told Rio that?" Jenny asked.
Chase pushed his cup away from him, the sudden motion strong enough to cause the coffee it contained to slosh out over the side. "How the hell am I supposed to tell a man that I've just realized my bullheaded stupidity cost him five years of his life? How do I do that, Jenny? How the hell do I ever make up for that?"
"I don't know. I don't know that you can make up for it, but I do know that admitting you were wrong would be a good first step."
Chase's laugh was short and harsh. "Somehow that doesn't seem to be quite enough," he said. "It damn well wouldn't be enough for me."
"But then you're one of those hardheaded McCullars. Maybe Rio " She hesitated, realizing that Rio was a McCullar also, that unmistakable heritage from his father stamped as indelibly on his beautiful Latino features as it had been on the faces of his two half brothers.
"Maybe Rio's a better man than his brother," Chase suggested quietly.
"A more forgiving one," Jenny said, finally smiling at him. "At least I hope so. And you didn't answer my question. Do you want an invitation to Rio's wedding?"
The depth of the breath Chase took was visible and audible, but he still didn't respond.
"If it's any help to you in reaching that decision," she said, "I'd really like for you to be there. I think Trent would appreciate your showing up."
"Trent's not too thrilled about this, I guess. About Anne marrying Rio."
"I think he's trying to make the best of what he's bound to see as a bad situation."
"Senator Richardson's beloved little sister marrying an ex-con."
"Who shouldn't have been an ex-con," she reminded him quietly, feeling the need to defend Rio, even from Chase.
"And who wouldn't have been, except for me," he acknowledged.
"That sounds like justification enough for you to feel obligated to show up at his wedding."
"Obligated," he repeated bitterly. He pushed his chair away from the table and stood.
"They wore hair shirts in the Middle Ages," Jenny said, working at keeping her own lips from tilting, although the teasing note was clear in her voice. "All you'll need to put on is a suit."
"You don't think Rio will throw me out?"
"If you show up, you can probably even dance with the bride."
"I think I'll settle for dancing with the groom's sister-in-law," he said.
"Samantha will be delighted to hear that, I'm sure." Chase's wife, Samantha, was one of Jenny's best friends and had been long before she married Chase McCullar.
"I wasn't talking about Samantha," Chase said. He crossed the small distance between them and leaned down to press his lips lightly to Jenny's cheeksomething she couldn't ever remember him doing before. Then, without another word, he went out the kitchen door.
Jenny turned back to the dishes in the sink, but she was smiling, and as the long afternoon passed, she found herself remembering that unexpected brotherly kiss, and smiling again.
It was good to have Chase home. And Rio, another of Mac's brothers, whom she had really never known until he, too, had come back home. Rio had arrived at her ranch, angry and vengeful, determined to make Chase McCullar pay for what he had done, and instead he had ended up becoming part of Jenny's family.
Two men who were, in spite of all the bitterness and betrayal that lay in their past, finally becoming brothers. She only wished there was some way Mac could know about that. She really believed Mac would have approved.
He took another look into the motel's mirror. Doing that wasn't something that ever gave him pleasure, although he thought he had probably done the best he could with his appearance this afternoon. His thick brown hair, brushed with gray at the temples, had just been trimmed. The suit he wore was new and expensive, and it had been expertly tailored to fit the tall, lean body. The white shirt was also a recent purchase, as was the maroon silk tie, its darkly subdued pattern very appropriate, they had told him, for an afternoon wedding.
These weren't the kinds of clothes he was accustomed to wearing. Not like any he'd ever worn in his life, but then that was really what this was all about, he thought. Disguise and deception. He hated them both, hated the necessity of them, although he couldn't deny that they were necessary. Just as he knew the brown contact lens he wore was necessary.
Before he left the room, he took the clipping he'd been carrying around with him for the last couple of months out of his wallet and laid it on the top of the dresser, carefully smoothing the creases with his left hand until it lay perfectly flat.
Knowing that he would need the courage it would provide, he made himself read it again, slowly, although by now he knew the words by heart. At least he knew the ones that mattered. The ones that had finally brought him to San Antonio today.
The newspaper column he had so carefully preserved contained the announcement of the engagement that had led to the wedding he would attend this afternoon. An engagement between Anne Richardson, Texas State Senator Trent Richardson's sister, and a man named Rio Delgado. That announcement had been the crux of the column, but that hadn't been what had caused him to read and reread this well-worn clipping.
It had been the two-sentence teaser the society writer had included at the bottom that had been branded into his consciousness, that had gnawed at his gut since he'd first seen it. The words he had read over and over concerned the impending nuptials of Senator Richardson himself. To the widow of slain Texas lawman Mac McCullar.
The man's gaze lifted again to the mirror. He didn't recognize the reflection therethe black patch that hid the empty socket of his right eye; the strange, reconstructed features; the deliberately altered color of his remaining eye. A stranger in a stranger's body, and he guessed that was the way it should be. He felt like a stranger.
He picked up the clipping, which was beginning to come apart along the creases from the number of times he had unfolded the paper to reread those words, and he held it for a long time, thinking.
He had given up any rights he'd ever had to interfere in Jenny's life, he acknowledged, given them up by conscious decision. He shouldn't be here. He had no right to be. That had been the guiding principle of his life for the last five years. And then and then he had seen this, and all the reasons he had known and understood had seemed to fade into insignificance in the face of those two sentences.