The night rancher Reed Westbrook makes love to Kaitlyn Nuhn, his life ends. While in the throes of passion, his brother is murdered and Reed becomes the prime suspect. When Kaitlyn, his solid alibi, vanishes, Reed goes straight to prison and becomes a scourge of the town.
Finally released, Reed lives under the radar, until Kaitlyn reappears claiming she was held prisoner by the real murderer, a man so powerful he's virtually untouchable. This killer will stop at nothing to eliminate Kaitlyn, and only Reed can protect her. The electrifying attraction that drove him to near-madness is still as powerful as ever. And the walls he's built around his heart are in danger of crumbling.
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Reed Westbrook knew all too well that there were many kinds of torment. Some were subtle, like the way most townsfolk crossed to the other side of the street to avoid having to speak to him, or when salesclerks in the local stores averted their eyes as they reluctantly waited on him.
Reed was pretty damn tired of it.
Judging from the repetitive knocking on Reed's front doorright in the final forty-five seconds of the playoff football gameDeputy Sheriff George Putchinski was at it again.
Reed debated ignoring it, pretending he wasn't home. But since his presence was obviouswith his pickup parked in his driveway and the TV turned up pretty loudhe hefted himself out of his chair and headed toward the door.
The first few times this had happened, when he'd opened the door to see a uniformed Anniversary deputy standing on his step, he'd been flabbergasted. Ten or fifteen instances later, he'd gotten his response down pat.
Swinging open the door, he started his spiel. "I didn't do it. Whatever it was. Now go"
He stopped. Stared. Not George. No, not even close. The gorgeous woman with the amazing blue eyes definitely wasn't Reed's nemesis. And yet she was.
He knew her instantly. Kaitlyn Nuhn had once been the girlfriend of his brother, Tim. In addition to that, she'd been the only person who'd known the truth, and who could have kept Reed from going to prison for his brother's murder. The fact that she hadn't, and disappeared instead, brought the anger back, full force. He nearly shut the door in her face.
By some instinct, he held back. Because maybe, after all this time, she'd give him a reason, some freaking closure. And possibly even a chance to finally clear his name and find out who had really shot Tim dead.
Heaven help him if she confessed it had been her.
As he stood staring, their gazes locked, he saw a flash of something in her eyes. He recognized it as pain, an emotion he'd felt often during the dark time he'd spent behind bars. If he hadn't gotten out on appeal, he knew he would have gone crazy, locked away in hell for a crime he hadn't committed.
"Kaitlyn Nuhn. I'll be damned," he said softly, raking his gaze over her as if he found her repulsive, when in fact it was the opposite. Just like always, his heart stuttered, his chest felt tight and he couldn't speak. He clenched his fist around the doorknob, frozen with indecision, which pissed him off even more.
When he'd thought of her, which had been more often than he'd like to admit, he'd hoped time hadn't been kind to her. Surely the ugliness inside had to have manifested in her looks, somehow.
Shocked, he now saw that hadn't been the case. She still looked unreal. Still as stunningly beautiful, as if she'd just stepped from the pages of some glossy magazine ad for women's lingerie. Just as in the old days, the power of that beauty felt like a punch in the gut.
She didn't speak. Just stood staring up at him, a combination of naked fear, sorrow or regret making hollows in her cheeks. He looked past her, noting the sleek silver luxury car. Why had she returned? To make an apology? She was way too late for that. Three years, to be exact. It would have been longer had it not been for his astute lawyer, the prosecution's mistakes and lack of evidence.
But that didn't negate the three years he'd spent in a hellhole, with his brother dead and not knowing who had killed him. Or the way people in this town still treated him like a killer, capable of gunning down his own twin brother.
"What do you want?" he asked, not bothering to be polite. He'd let her say her spiel, nod in response and close the door in her face. Then he'd go back to his football game and his ordinary, quiet life. And try to forget the way seeing her brought the past rushing back up.
"I came to tell you I'm sorry." Her husky voice wavered and she swallowed, continuing to keep her gaze locked on his.
"Sorry?" He spat the word. "Too little, too late. Your apology means nothing to me."
Bowing her head, she nodded, as if she'd expected this. "I'm sorry about what happened to you. That's why I came back. I wanted you to know the truth, about all of it. I know who murdered Tim." Pausing for breath, she kept her gaze locked on his. "And then he set you up to go to prison for it. He couldn't keep you from filing the appeal or from getting out, but he tried."
Of all the things she could have said, he hadn't expected this. Worse, he didn't believe her. Why should he, after all this time? "You also knew I couldn't have done it. Especially since you'd left me in your bed, waiting for your return."
Unbelievably, she blushed. "That was a mistake."
"You'd better believe it was." He met her gaze full on, letting his loathing show. "You were my only alibi, and you disappeared. And you know what? For the longest time, I thought you might have been who killed Tim."
Recoiling as if he'd stabbed her, she stared at him. He only looked away when her bottom lip started trembling, furious with himself that he could still feel any emotion at all toward her.
"Why are you really here?" Reed took a step closer, aware he was clenching his hands into fists.
"I wanted to apologize. For everything. He set it up so that we'd blame each other." She swallowed again, the movement drawing his gaze to her graceful throat. "I came as soon as I learned the truth."
Part of him wanted to believe her. After all, he'd spent years wondering who'd really killed Tim and set Reed up to take the blame. Prison had given him time to burn for revenge.
And now, when Kaitlyn held out the information like a poisoned T-bone in front of a starving dog, he wasn't sure what to believe. The past he'd shared with this woman had proven that she wasn't to be trusted. No matter how great her beauty.
Finally, as he'd known he would, he went for the bone. "Who?" he rasped. "Give me the name."
The fact that she still hesitated made another strike against her.
"The name," he repeated.
She glanced at the doorway, almost as if she expected someone to come charging through and save her. Or knock her down.
Finally, she spoke. "Okay." She met his gaze straight on and lifted her chin. "Alex Ramirez."
At first he didn't recognize the name. When he did, his first impulse was to think she was lying. "Lieutenant Governor Ramirez? The same guy who's been talking about making a run for governor?"
"Yes." Though her generous mouth thinned, making her appear miserable, she stood her ground. "That's the one."
He nearly snorted out loud. "Why him? And if you're telling the truth, why didn't you come forward before now?"
Again the hesitation. Just enough to make him question whatever she might say.
"Why not?" He fired back.
"Because I've been Alex's prisoner for the last three years." She took a little breath, blowing it back out her nose. "He likes to brutalize wounded things."
Her words made no sense. "Why should I believe anything you have to say?" he said. "Don't show up here and then try to play me for a fool."
"I'm not, believe me." Her chest heaved as she turned to go, drawing his unwilling gaze. "You know what? You're right. I shouldn't have come. I'm sorry to have bothered you."
Something she'd said haunted him. "Wait," he told her. "What do you mean about him liking to brutalize wounded things?"
Her blue eyes blazedeither with hope or with pain. In his mind, sometimes the two had become indistinguishable.
"Exactly what it sounds like. And now I've escaped. If he finds me, I'm a dead woman. Especially since I know what he's done."
Still not entirely convinced, nonetheless he stepped aside and motioned her into his living room. "Please. Come in."
As she moved past him, he caught a whiff of her scent, which surprisingly reminded him of vanilla rather than the flowery perfume he remembered.
"Have a seat." Though he sounded churlish, he didn't care. Indicating the sofa, he tried not to stare as she sank gracefully onto the leather cushions. She wore a T-shirt and jeansordinary clothes that were elevated to an entirely new level by her feminine curves. Her kind of lush, wild beauty would make any red-blooded man break out in a sweat.
And Reed was no exception. The sharp surge of desire he felt when he looked at her was nothing new, though certainly as unwelcome now as it had been before. He'd always had trouble not wanting her, even back then when she'd belonged to his brother. He didn't understand how this could still be so, especially now when he should despise her.
Noise from the television drew his attention. The football game had gone into overtime. Since he no longer cared, Reed grabbed the remote and turned off the TV.
Deciding to continue standing, he crossed his arms and glared at her, deliberately hostile, feeling it was safer this way. "Explain," he ordered, when she showed no sign of elaborating.
She sighed and smoothed back her wealth of golden hair with perfectly manicured fingers, although a few wisps defied her hand and continue to frame her perfect, oval face. Her skin glowed, the flawless alabaster of fine porcelain, beauty personified. Eyeing her he wondered exactly as he'd done in the past, how his brother had been able to get a girl as lovely as her.
Of course neither Reed nor Tim had known her beauty concealed the heart of a snake. Best to remember this now, he knew. Steeling himself, he cocked his head while he waited for her to speak.
"May I please have a glass of water?" she asked. "It's a long drive from Austin. I was afraid to stop more than once." She looked down. "I wasn't sure if I was being followed, so I had to take several evasive precautions."
"Followed?" Shaking his head, he got up, fetched a plastic bottle of spring water from the fridge and handed it to her. "Here you go."
He waited, trying not to stare while she drank, though the movement of her long slender throat drew his eye. He both hated and acknowledged it, aware he could use this edginess to keep him sharp and on his toes.
When she'd finished drinking, she set the bottle down. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." He inclined his head.
"Yes." She sighed. "Before I begin, you should know I can't stay long. This is the first place he'll look. If he finds me, he'll kill me and whoever I'm with. So you're putting yourself in danger by even talking to me."
"A risk I'm willing to take, if what you say is true. Let's hear it."
She winced. "It's a long story."
"No. Make it short and to the point." He went so far as to glance at his watch before meeting her gaze again. "If you plan to lie to me, don't. I've had enough BS from you to last more than a lifetime."
Her amazing eyes widened. "I've never lied to you."
"Really." He couldn't resist. "Since you were my only alibi, I'd say the way you managed to disappear rather than show up in court is falsehood enough. I went to prisoninnocentfor the death of my own brother. Because you couldn't take the time to tell the truth." Again, he felt the sharp, burning ache he always felt when he thought of the way his brother had been gunned down in cold blood.
"It's not what you think," she began.
"Be that as it may, Tim's dead." He managed to sound normal. "And you aren't. Now you're going to tell me what proof you have that Alex Ramirez killed him, and how."
Back ramrod straight, Kaitlyn tried to draw on the sense of purpose that had propelled her the entire way to Anniversary. She'd expected hostility, after all.
Still, some tiny, foolish part of her heart had hoped he'd understand. Maybe even be sympathetic, but she could hardly blame him. He'd spent the past three years believing her responsible for what he'd endured. She couldn't expect him to comprehend how badly she'd suffered herself.
She wasn't here for sympathy, or to try and repair the broken pieces of a relationship that had been doomed from the start. She'd come to find justice. For not only Tim's murder and Reed's incarceration, but for what Alex Ramirez had done to her. He'd ruined three lives, as casually as another man would kill a fly. He deserved to pay.
But would Reed believe her? He'd already made it clear what he thought. Worse, she didn't even have proof. Just her word against a powerful lieutenant governor.
Raising her head, she saw Reed watched her, his gaze dark and intent. A shiver ghosted over her skin, making goose bumps rise. Prison had changed him some, sharpened the edges of his profile, and deepened the reserve in his eyes. Still, he was easy on the eyes, despite the hardship he'd endured. She'd always thought him beautiful, even back when she and his twin brother, Tim, had been an item. Though Reed and Tim had the same features, the same shock of thick, dark hair, something in the depths of Reed's hazel eyes had always called to her.
The attraction that had simmered between the two of them had made her feel like a moth circling around a flame.
Finally, unable to resist, she'd given in. And then the one evening of explosive passion they'd shared had been the night Tim had been murdered. She'd spent three years wondering if Reed would always associate her embrace with the brutal death of his brother.
"Well?" he prodded. "If you have something to say, say it."
"When I left you, still asleep in my bed, I knew what I needed to do. So I scribbled a quick note to you and I went to find Tim." She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. She took a long drink of water, willing her voice to remain steady. "I intended to break it off with him."
Surprise flashed across his rugged features, but he didn't comment.
Briefly, she closed her eyes. Even after all this time, the horrible scene still had the power to paralyze her. "I walked in on him and Alex arguing. Of course, I didn't know who Alex was then." Her throat felt raw. This might be past history, but the memory of it still hurt.
"Go on," he urged.
She tried to speak and couldn't.
"Alex Ramirez and Tim were arguing? And then what?"
"Yes. The instant Tim saw me, he looked afraid. He ordered me to leave, but Alex grabbed me. I knew from the expression on Tim's face that it wasn't good, but I didn't know how bad. Not yet."
She took a deep, shaky breath, aware what she had to tell him next would be painful. Miserable, she tried to find the right words, then decided just to say it.
"Alex killed him." The words came out in a hoarse whisper. "He turned around, pulled out a pistol and shot Tim dead. Right there, right in front of me. And when I freaked out, he told me to calm down or he'd kill me, too."
Reed swore. The dark shadow in his gaze spoke of his contempt for her, of the fact that he disbelieved her story. She told herself that didn't matter, that it was justified. Just like she'd actually come to believe she deserved to be treated the way Alex had abused her.
"And then Alex tied me up, put me in the trunk of his car, and took me back to his mansion." Such a simple sentence could not possibly convey the horror of what had happened. That night and for many days and nights after. Years, actually.
"And no one noticed you were gone?" He couldn't quite hide his disbelief.
"With everything that happened, I think they assumed I fled out of cowardice."
Silence, while he considered this.
"How'd you escape?" Reed asked. "And when?"
Heaven help her, her lower lip started quivering. She coughed, using her hand to try and cover it up. "Just now. Today. Despite knowing Anniversary is the first place Alex will look, I needed to come to you and try to make things right before I go on the run."
The skepticism in his eyes made her feel sick. "I shouldn't have come here. I see that now."
"Then why did you?" he asked quietly. "Really, why did you?"