Excerpt: Crimes of the Heart

Crimes of the Heart by Laurie LeClair

Book 2: The Heart Romance Series

Chapter One

Her dream man just walked through the door.

Jewel Wainwright’s breath caught in the back of her throat and her heart hitched. Devon Marshall stood in a brilliant beam of autumn sunlight in the foyer of her vacant childhood home.

The tall, angular boy she’d known and loved had evolved into a lean muscular man, rendering her senseless. The sun brought out the mahogany highlights in his brown hair, just as it always had. But, the color seemed darker, richer somehow and she longed to run her fingers through the thick, wavy mass, disrupting the orderly style he now wore it in. A sweet rush swept over her as she recalled the soft texture and clean scent of his hair. She curled her fingers into her palm, halting the impulse to touch the dark strands, to touch him.

He moved forward. A knot tightened in her middle. Would he discover her? When he headed toward the arched entrance to the formal living room, she sighed inwardly.

What was he doing here? She stepped deeper into the shadows of the long hallway, hoping to continue to go undetected. Feeling for the doorjamb, Jewel clutched the wood for support as she tip-toed backward into the kitchen. She planted her back against the wall.

With a shaky hand she covered her mouth and drew in several short, ragged gasps. Years of doggedly building up her self-reliance and resilience melted away. Just seeing him again transported her back to the rebellious teenager she’d been: A young woman who had craved attention and found the dangerous aspect to their forbidden affair far too appealing.

No, it can’t be him. Not here. Not now.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to dislodge the image of him. She failed. From nearly twenty feet away she’d succeeded at memorizing the angles and planes of his well-honed features. In her mind, she’d imprinted every powerful muscle clothed in his black shirt and jeans. Breathless anticipation had her imagining the carefully banked desire that used to reside in his green eyes whenever he gazed at her.

Oh, and his hands, settled on his hips, brought the most delicious recollections filtering through her. Long fingers, padded with calluses from all the hard work he’d performed in the stables, had touched her with such reverence, such intimacy. Heat suffused her, blazing trails through her bloodstream and warming places that had been cold for ages.

His footsteps echoed through the barren Victorian home, revealing to her where he’d decided to go. The library. “Of course,” she whispered, recalling the vivid memory twelve years ago when her father had banished Devon from the property because of her. It had been the last time she’d seen him.

An ache gathered behind her heart. The evidence proved his intentions beyond a doubt. He’d needed her to exact his revenge against her father. He didn’t want her. He only wanted what she could do for him in furthering his cause. So why hadn’t he played out his last card? she wondered even today. Shaking her head she rid herself of the nagging question.

But one thought prodded her. Would anyone ever want her for who she was deep down inside? Or would she always be someone’s trophy? Just like mother was.

Voices floated to her from outdoors, reminding her why she’d come here today. The estate auction. A dart of pain jabbed her as she realized she had no claim over any of her family’s property and hadn’t since she’d been eighteen. But, she planned on remedying that in just an hour.

The bidding would most certainly run high for her mother’s antique silver hairbrush, comb, and tray set. Jewel had prepared for that, dipping into her nest egg. I’ll finally have something of my mother’s to cherish.

The heavy sound of Devon pacing the long room in the west wing of the house intruded on her intention. He’d created more distance away from her. With that assurance firmly in her mind, she quietly crossed the now dilapidated kitchen she’d had many fond times in and swore the scent of baking sugar cookies still hung in the air.

Carefully opening, and then closing the squeaky screen door behind her, Jewel cringed at the noise. She hoped Devon hadn’t heard her and prayed she wouldn’t have to face him anytime soon. How can I look at him without revealing everything he needs to know?

***

Devon stilled, and then turned sharply. Silence reigned, heavy and oppressive. The metallic squeal didn’t sound again. Relaxing, he raked a hand through his hair and blew out a breath.

“You’re imagining things, Marshall, just like the rose scent you swore you detected a few minutes ago. Jewel’s scent,” he muttered under his breath.

Being in the house again dug up long buried sensations, never mind the thoughts of Jewel with her long, glossy black hair, heart-shaped face, violet eyes, silky perfumed porcelain skin, perfect cupid lips, and soft sighs.

“Hey, Devon, you in here?” His lawyer’s gravelly voice vibrated through the house and jarred him from his heated mental exploration of the one and only woman he’d ever cared for. The woman who’d chose to stay here with her family instead of leaving town with him. But that had never been in the initial plan of vengeance, nor had hurting Jewel.

“In the library, Gil!”

His steps clopped on the hardwood flooring as he sought out Devon. A few minutes later, Gil Lambert strode into the barren room where the surrounding shelves stood woefully missing its dear occupants.

Devon smiled at the disheveled appearance of the man. Tousled salt and pepper hair and a rumpled navy suit were at odds with the keen, perceptive attorney.

He halted in front of Devon, holding out a manila envelope. “The papers are signed. The place is all yours now. You staying for the sale of the contents of the house?”

Taking the packet of documents, the tight band around Devon’s chest eased. It’s finally mine. God, I’ve waited a lifetime for this. And this is only the beginning in getting back what my father deserved. Searching the questioning gaze directed at him, he asked, “Yeah. So why don’t you look happy about it?”

“Do you want my professional or personal opinion?”

“Give it to me straight.”

Gil paused, obviously collecting his thoughts. “You came storming back into town when you found out this property was on the auction block.”

“I’m entitled to it.”

His lawyer held up his hands palm side out. “Whoa now! There’s no denying the Marshalls owned this place long before the Wainwrights did.”

“You mean stole, don’t you?”

“Old man Wainwright and your father were partners. All right, even twenty years later there are still some gray areas about how Wainwright got his mitts on the place after your father died, but…”

Devon balled his hands into fists. “Say it! But no one gives a damn because my father was married to another woman when he got my mother pregnant with me and supposedly embezzled a hundred thousand dollars from his partnership with Wainwright.”

He received a curt nod. “Then there’s your relationship with his daughter.”

“Jewel? How…how did anyone find out about us?” Did they know it all? The forbidden affair? He blocked the rest of that thought, unwilling to delve too deep.

“Put you two in the same room together back then and people were bound to suspect something. You gave away more with just one look than most couples do in years. They figured it out.”

“Gossiped about is more like it,” Devon muttered under his breath. “Even if they did know, what does that have to do with my buying back what’s rightfully mine?”

“She stills lives in town.”

His heart lurched in his chest. He’d speculated, but never really imagined it. As nonchalantly as he could, he asked, “How’s she doing?”

“Fine, considering.”

The paper crinkled in protest as he tightened his grip on the envelope. “What’s that supposed to mean? Is she all right? Is she seeing someone–” He cut himself off, feeling like a fool for giving an inkling away about how interested he was in her life and what had become of her.

“As far as I can tell she never even dated.”

Two opposing reactions swirled inside Devon as he eased his firm grasp on the paperwork. One part of him cheered at the thought; he refused to picture her with another man, not after their passionate, forbidden affair. But, the other half of him, the part of him that recognized the lonely existence they had unknowingly shared these last twelve years, throbbed in a tender spot in his core.

Confusion took hold of Devon. “Then why isn’t she running the place? You never did explain to me why she let the property be taken away from her family.”

Gil’s razor-sharp, blue gaze sliced through him, clearly trying to convey a message Devon wasn’t receiving. “She didn’t have a choice in the matter.”

Frowning, he said, “Of course she did. All she had to do was pay the back taxes on it when the son-of-a-bitch left it to her after he croaked last year.” A deafening silence ensued, alerting Devon to the simmering anger just below the surface of the usually self-contained attorney. Alarm bells rang in Devon’s head. “He did leave it to her, didn’t he?”

“No.” The short, clipped answer lent credence to the man’s bottled up emotions.

A current of shock raced through him. “You’re joking, right?”

Gil shook his head abruptly, and then tunneled his hands through his hair, causing it to stand on end even more.

Trying to make light of it, Devon said, “So, she just took the money and ran…”

The dark look the lawyer shot him made the hairs on the back of Devon’s neck stand on end.

Dear God, what had happened to Jewel after I was tossed out of here? He braced himself as he demanded, “Tell me.”

“He disowned her.”


Chapter Two

Jewel sat ramrod-straight in a folding chair among a sea of frenzied antique hunters. Awaiting the arrival of her mother’s things as the auctioneer proceeded to sell off the family heirlooms proved torturous to her. The numbered biding paddle clutched in her hands was her way of reminding herself not to break down and cry in a public place. Cool, calm, collected.

She’d adopted the persona years ago as the small town’s gossipers had dug their fangs into her. Eventually the talk died down, but not before a lot of scars had formed inside her. And now with Devon back they would start all over again. She cringed inwardly at that piece of knowledge.

Suddenly, she became aware of the hushed whispers all around her and several heads turning to look at the back of the outdoor assembled group. Devon. It could only be him, she figured as a few nearby attendees shot sideway glances at her.

Outwardly she remained focused on the balding, heavyset auctioneer who had just announced the next lot of items to be sold, her mother’s personal things. Just a few minutes more than I can buy the set and be gone.

But inside all her senses became attuned to Devon. She felt his heated stare on the back of her neck, like a laser finding its target and zapping it. In the slight afternoon breeze, she could imagine it carried the clean, soapy scent of him to her. And surely that was the cadence of his rich, honeyed voice floating above the others…

Devon jammed his hands into his pockets, having deposited the packet of papers in his car minutes earlier. A burning sensation began in his belly and moved to his chest as he grew aware of the audience’s fascination with him being here. Don’t they have anything better to do than speculate about me? he wondered as he overheard several snide remarks.

He should be used to being treated like this; he’d been a topic of ridicule all the years he lived in this place. It hadn’t come easy to let it roll off his back then, and it appeared nothing had changed in that regard.

Within seconds of arriving, Devon had easily picked out Jewel, being drawn to her like a magnet. Maybe she had been in the house, leaving the scent of roses behind.

Now he stared at the back of her head, silently begging her to turn around and face him. He longed to see the changes time had wrought, to read her expressive violet eyes, and to witness her reaction to seeing him again. Would she be happy or upset?

But first he had some things he needed to find out. What had she supposedly done in order for her old man to eliminate her from his will? “Why not just tell me the rest? Why all the mystery, Gil?”

The attorney’s presence at his side was both annoying and comforting. At least Devon had one ally in town.

Gil nodded to the object of their conversation. “It’s up to her to tell you, not me.”

She’s cut her hair. He noticed the shoulder blade skimming length and mourned the absence of the waist long strands. Oh, how he enjoyed sliding his hands through the silky mass.

Shaking off the highly erotic memory, Devon glanced at Gil, saying, “You’re my lawyer, aren’t you? If you want more money then all you have to do is say so. But I expect to get some answers when I ask a question.”

A smile transformed the somber features of the man, clearly not taking offense at the command. “You sounded like your father just then. And I’ll tell you what I told him years ago, I’ll take on all the legal aspects for you, but no more. If you’ve got a personal agenda with someone, then you’ve got to do your own leg work, especially if I consider the other person a friend.”

Removing his hands from his pockets, Devon folded his arms over his chest. “Is that why you didn’t investigate Wainwright back then?”

Visibly bristling at that accusation, Gil nearly bellowed, “Good God, no! I handled the paperwork for the partnership as a favor to your father. Legally, I was bound to represent them both. I didn’t like it, but I did it.”

“That’s why you dropped Wainwright right after my father died, isn’t it?”

“I gave you more credit than to have to ask that question.”

Devon grinned. “Oh, I knew it already, otherwise I wouldn’t have hired you myself. I just wanted to hear someone else hated the bastard as much as I did.”

“I don’t think anyone could hate him more than you do, Devon.”

With that statement hanging in the air, Devon tuned in to the furious commotion taking place. Suddenly the bidding had reached its zenith and a tall, elderly woman smiled triumphantly as the dainty writing desk became hers.

Several objects came and went just as quickly and with just as much fervor. Jewel remained motionless. “Christ, how can she stand it?” Devon wondered out loud as he raked a hand through his hair, shuddering inwardly at the callous way her mother’s possessions were disposed of.

“If you look close enough, you’ll see she can’t.”

Narrowing his eyes, Devon sought out any sign in her demeanor that gave away her emotions. There, he’d seen her flinch and stiffen her shoulders ever so slightly as if shoring up her reserves for the next grave insult to her dead mother.

The announcement for the next item boomed over the squealing microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a lovely silver antique hair, comb, and mirrored tray set. Who’ll start the bidding at fifty dollars?”

Jewel’s hand shot up, the numbered paddle firmly grasped in her white-knuckled grip. Her abrupt action startled Devon. She wants this one bad. So, why should I care? But I do.

“Fifty dollars from number forty on my right to start us off,” the auctioneer cried. “Do I have sixty?” At the middle-aged man in the corner who raised his paddle, the announcer pointed, and then said, “I’ve got sixty. Can I have seventy?” The woman who had bought the desk bid. “Seventy. How about eighty?”

Devon grew dizzy as the frantic bidding war bounced back and forth at an accelerated pace. The man dropped out at two hundred dollars, but the white-haired lady challenged Jewel at every turn.

Silent until now, Gil said in an aside, “She’s from out of town or she’d have refused to bid against Jewel.”

Half-hearing the muttered words, Devon asked, “Huh?”

“Everyone who lives in town hasn’t bid at all on this item. The only reason I can figure is because they want Jewel to have it. They may not say it or show it, but they know the raw deal she got from the son-of-a-bitch. And they truly like her.”

Stunned wonder filled Devon. No one had ever done anything like that for him before. Well, Jewel… He stopped that thought as quickly as it formed. He jerked his head to the other woman. “And her?”

“Probably a regular auction goer who saw the notice in the papers. Looks like she may win this one, too.”

The man conducting the event yelled out, “We’ve got four hundred from the lady to my left. What about you, number forty, do I have four twenty five?”

Slowly, Jewel shook her head and dropped her hand to her lap. Dejection was in every line of her slumped shoulders. Something twisted inside Devon. The majority of the crowd moaned as if they shared Jewel’s pain.

“Well, now, four hundred going once…going twice…” He dragged it out.

Devon stepped forward, saying, “Five hundred dollars!”

A collective gasp rose up from the attendees.

He ignored them all, all except Jewel as she whipped her head around to face him. It felt as if a mule had kicked him in his gut, robbing him of air. He read the suffering in her eyes at the proceedings taking place and the shock of his boldness. But her beauty shook him to his core. She’d far exceeded his dreams of how she’d look when he saw her again, ripping him in two and propelling him back in time when he’d had the privilege of holding her close and making her his. I wish I could do the same right now.

Loud coughing over the microphone jarred him back to the present. “Sir, do you have a number? Did you register to bid today?”

He couldn’t take his gaze off of Jewel. “No.”

“Then I’m sorry, but you can’t participate–”

“The hell I can’t!” That earned Devon more flabbergasted noises and several protests to boot.

A hand descended on his shoulder, squeezing hard with a warning. “Let me handle this, Devon.”

Twisting back briefly to look at his lawyer, Devon said under his breath, “I thought you said as my attorney you only took care of my legal concerns.”

“Ah…I’ll make an exception this one time.”

“Forget it, Gil. I’ll do it my way.”

“You always did, so why should I expect different now?” He heard the smile in Gil’s voice, and then felt the pressure of the lawyer’s hand slip away.

To the head honcho, Devon directed his next words. “I’m bidding on behalf of the lady here.” He nodded to Jewel and she paled considerably. “I’m prepared to go as high as necessary in order to buy the set for her. Any more questions?”

The flustered man cleared his throat. “No, none at all. We’ve got five hundred going once, going twice, sold,” he rushed out, bringing the gavel down hard and ending any further discussion from the clearly stunned audience.

Heat burned in Jewel’s cheeks as she rose, leaving the numbered paddle in her seat. Making mumbled pardons to the people in her aisle, she quickly stepped over their feet, nearly tripping twice in her haste. Finally, she gained her freedom and walked with determined strides to her car parked among a group of others on the lawn. Don’t let anyone suspect how upset you are.

“Jewel, wait up.” Devon’s rich voice strummed along her nerve endings.

Halting at her rundown blue car, she turned slowly as she cursed herself for coming here today, for wanting to preserve a piece of her mother and her past. He stopped a foot away, jamming his hands in his pockets, something she recalled him doing numerous times while growing up. Maybe the Devon she once knew hadn’t completely vanished after all.

She couldn’t help but take in the man he had become. Tanned, powerfully built, sophisticated, ruthless. She read the last hard quality in his cold, penetrating gaze. A sinking sensation rippled through her. He’s come back to play out his revenge.

Gulping hard, she shook off the acute awareness that buzzed between them. Jewel broke the charged silence by calling up her anger. “If you intended to humiliate me, you did a good job.”

He reared back as if punched. “Well, it’s nice to see you again, too. Oh no, don’t even think of thanking me for buying the set for you.”

A pang of remorse tugged in her middle. He’d bought that precious link to her mother for her. But the independent streak she’d worked hard at claiming these last years resurfaced now. “I don’t accept charity, from you or anyone else, Devon Marshall.”

He patted the battered hood of her car, producing a metal ping. “Obviously not.”

His sarcasm cut her to the quick. What did he know about her life? Who had told him? Gil? She could feel more color creep into her face. Sticking out her chin, she raised her head high. A hollow ache throbbed behind her ribs as she encountered his mesmerizing green eyes. Conflicting emotions chased across them, and then disappeared just as quickly. What had he been thinking just then?

Grabbing ahold of herself, Jewel jerked her gaze away, trying to regulate her breathing pattern once again. “Why are you here?”

“For the auction, of course.”

“To gloat, you mean.”

He shifted, resting his hip on the fender of her car. “Maybe for him. But, never for you. Jesus, Jewel, what happened? He used to give you everything you ever wanted. Hell, I remember when five hundred dollars was chump change to the Wainwrights.”

“And a fortune to the Marshalls. So why should you care?” Her thoughts popped out of her mouth and she had no time to censor them.

Refusing to look directly at him and succumb to the magnetic power he still held over her, Jewel sensed his interest as the heat of his long, lazy perusal stroked her in places no man had touched in years. She bit back on the moan that threatened to escape her throat. If only she could forget Devon’s caresses and how he’d brought her to life. Briefly, she glanced up at him.

Shooting her a wry grin, he said, “Curiosity maybe, even a warped sense of responsibility for what I might have been able to do for you if I’d known, whatever you want to call it, I’d just like to know.”

“Responsibility?” An odd fluttering shot through her middle. Did he know? No, he couldn’t or that would have been the first thing he asked about. She’d been granted a temporary reprieve.

Shrugging his shoulders, he said, “Yeah, maybe if I’d have convinced you to go away with me…”

A sudden gust of wind lifted his hair and she longed to brush it back in place. The breeze brought the clean scent of him to her. She clamped her eyes shut for a moment, willing herself to hang onto the here and now and not be transported back in time, a time when he had been her world.

She picked up on what he couldn’t finish. “Don’t you see, Devon, it didn’t matter how much you pleaded with me to go away with you. My place was always here. And yours was to get rich. We both knew you couldn’t accomplish that here.”

“Your father saw to that.” Bitterness vibrated in his voice.

“You were always searching for something else.” Searching for something that was just out of your grasp. Something I wouldn’t be, it hurt to admit it to herself. And all I ever wanted was for you to love me. But you couldn’t, at least not the way I needed to be loved. For myself.

He shoved away from the car. “That’s not what you said that night. You stayed because this poor boy couldn’t give you what your family could. The comfort. The ease. The money.”

She blanched at how callous it sounded. I did too good of a job. “It wasn’t like that.”

“No?” He stepped closer. His anger simmered just below the surface, giving off a wave of heat that nearly suffocated her with its intensity.

Shaking her head she could only wonder what would happen next. She couldn’t very well tell him the real reason why she’d remained behind. Not now, anyway. In time, if he hangs around. He won’t stay. Devon Marshall always leaves.

He wrapped his hands around her upper arms. Jewel felt the fiery imprint of his flesh clear through her thin lavender sweater, searing her to the core. Her body strummed to life, remembering his touch.

“You take the cake, lady. Even after all this time you’re still denying it, aren’t you? Either you’re trying to convince yourself of it or you’re still playing the naive little rich girl. But, by the looks of it, you’re not rich anymore.”

Clinging to sheer willpower, Jewel bit out, “Oh, and I suppose you are.”

“That’s right, dollface, I am.”

He released her. She reached for the side of the car to steady her quaking legs. The cool metal beneath her palm did nothing to comfort her. Dollface, he used to call her that as a term of endearment, but just now it sounded more like a curse word.

Frowning at what he’d told her, she recalled her mother’s warning, rich men only want to hold their power over your head and manipulate you just as your father does to everyone.

A shiver of unease slivered down her spine. Without even having to think about it she sensed Devon’s mission.

“So you came back to flaunt it in everyone’s face and rub their noses in it, didn’t you? The bastard child makes good, is that how you want people to see you?” She cringed at how vicious she sounded even to her own ears. He brings out the worst in me.

He stiffened, growing remote.

In a daze, she said, “It’s true then.”

“I’m here to get back my father’s reputation and the respect he deserves.” A muscle jumped along his clenched jaw.

A knot of dread formed in her belly. She gulped hard, trying to swallow the rising bile bubbling to her throat. “How long are you in town for?” she asked in a hoarse whisper as her mind whirled with the possibility he might stay long enough to uncover her secret.

“For as long as it takes.”

The bottom dropped out of Jewel’s world as she stared up into a face so dear to her. The same features, only on a miniature scale, I look into every day. The son I adore, the son Devon doesn’t know we had together. \0x2028


Chapter Three

Nearly twenty-four hours had passed since Devon’s confrontation with her and yet he still failed to shake the image of Jewel Wainwright from his mind. Unfinished business, he figured as she’d occupied his musings thousands of occasions through the years.

He inserted the pitchfork in a pile of damp, stale hay in the vacant horse stall. Gathering a heap of the musty straw, Devon tossed it into the nearby wheelbarrow.

Sweat slid down into his eyes and he swiped it away with a gloved hand. Shirtless and bathed in perspiration, he rested his forearm on the handle of the pronged farm instrument, willing thoughts of Jewel away. It didn’t work this time either.

“Damn woman,” he muttered. “Damn sexy woman,” he corrected, picturing her in the form-fitting lavender sweater that enhanced the violet color of her eyes.

Biting down on a sudden wave of fresh desire, Devon tried to stem the flow of comparisons that sprang up. They came unbidden to him nonetheless. Gone was the pampered woman-child. She’d grown into an incredibly beautiful woman with long legs and more curves than a man dared to dream about.

Her face haunted him. From the delicately arched brows to her wide set eyes, down her long slender nose, to full cupid rosy lips, in the doll-like porcelain, heart-shaped face, all of it stirred him to his core. Grace and elegance completed the package. She was simply breathtaking.

A flicker of admiration sparked as he envisioned the feisty, determined woman who had faced him yesterday. No one had challenged him like that in a very long time. And no one had pushed his buttons the way Jewel could, yanking him back to the land of the living.

A woeful meow came from behind him and a second later a scrawny, smoky-gray cat wound its way around his jean-clad legs. Devon leaned the pitchfork against the wall, and then tugged off the work gloves, stuffing them in his back pocket. Stooping, he picked up the malnourished animal. A pang of empathy shot through him. Man, how many times did I go hungry trying to make it on my own?

Tucking the cat under his arm, Devon scratched its head, feeling the matted furry coat against his skin. A contented purr vibrated through the skin and bones creature. “Hey, buddy, where did you come from? I think I’ve got some tuna fish in the house. Want some?”

Another loud meow gave Devon his answer. He chuckled. “I guess that means yes.”

A few minutes later in the kitchen, with curious gray feline eyes watching his every move, Devon rooted through a box of provisions he’d bought a few days ago. “Ah, here it is. Now, let me just find the can opener and we’re in business. Oh, and I’ve got some milk stashed in the cooler you’re gonna love.”

Having prepared the simple meal, Devon straddled a wobbly chair backwards and watched the cat gobble down the food. “Hey, don’t eat so fast, you’re liable to make yourself sick.” In no time at all the pink tongue licked the bowl clean. “All right, one more can, but that’s it.”

Two muffled bangs, coming from somewhere outside, reached Devon. He stilled, straining to hear more. Nothing. “Man, I must be losing it, yesterday I think I smell roses, and then hear a squeak. Today I start talking to a cat. Now I think I hear another noise.” He shook his head in disgust. “Either it’s ghosts or my mind’s going.”

He rose, and then moved to the counter to drag out the other can of tuna. More meows rent the air. “Promise me you’ll eat this one a little slower this time, Cat… Hey, I can’t keep calling you Cat, now can I? So what’s it going to be? Give me one meow for yes, and two for no way, all right? Puss in boots? Felix? Let’s see…”

***

Jewel gazed up at the once pristine house she used to call home. Where the stone facade surrounded the front entrance, she detected accumulated dirt and dinginess. As far as the rest of the exterior, the white paint had taken on a dull, graying hue. The shudders, what remained of them, hung on what was most likely their last nail. Several broken upstairs windows spoke of abandonment. Dead shrubs and large patches of brown grass told their own story. Something tugged inside of her at the air of neglect.

What would my mother’s gardens look like? She shuddered at the image that rose to the forefront of her mind: overgrown weeds, decaying flowers, and rotting plants.

“Come on, mom, can I?”

Banishing the horrible thoughts, she turned to her son, and then smiled at his enthusiasm. Her heart swelled with love as she gazed at the joy written all over his features. “Yes, you can go explore, Sean, but don’t forget we can’t stay long.” Just long enough for one last good-bye.

“Thanks,” he tossed over his shoulder as he raced to the stables. Hints of maghoney gleamed in his dark hair as the afternoon sun shone down on him. His lean, compact eleven-year-old body made short work of the distance.

So like his father, Jewel mused as she followed at a much slower pace. Thoughts of Devon returned, never having been far away since seeing him again yesterday at the auction. The man he had become mingled, and then joined, with the boy he’d been. A rush of memories swirled in her mind and she was hard pressed to distinguish the past from the present.

How many times had she rushed to get to the stables where Devon awaited her? In the daytime, she’d been discreet, not allowing anyone to suspect their forbidden affair. That had only forced her to rely on adopting a shorthand form of communication with him.

With one look he’d been able to read her. She’d allowed him access to her most private thoughts and emotions, something she’d never let anyone before or since do. Never let anyone get close again, so they won’t hurt me like he did.

With a sudden wave of trepidation, Jewel entered the stables. She blinked rapidly to adjust to the dim interior. A waft of leather and saddle soap snuck up on her. Had she imagined it or could it be real? An ache suffused her at all she’d lost, all she hadn’t appreciated when she’d had it.

“Sean?”

He popped out of a stall at the far end of the long structure. “I’m right here, mom. I’m going back outside, there’s a shed and an old barn I want to check out.”

The barn. “Not the barn, Sean, all right?”

“Ah…come on. I promise I won’t get into any trouble or anything.”

She sighed, wondering how she could turn him down. Compromise. “Just don’t climb the ladder to the loft. The boards are probably rotten up there.” And I don’t want you to see where your father and I made love, where you were conceived.

“Great!” He ran out the back exit.

Walking through the empty building, a sense of nostalgia swept over Jewel. Oh how she loved this place, loved the horses that once resided here. It had been ages since she could afford to ride; she needed every precious penny she earned as a hairdresser to raise her son.

Smiling fondly, she peeked into several stalls Sean had apparently visited, and then stopped dead in her tracks when she spotted a half-filled wheelbarrow with a pitchfork close by.

“Someone’s been here recently. The new owners.” Berating herself, Jewel mentally retraced her steps. No sign of life had shown itself. Everything seemed vacant and uncared for.

Shoving open the nearly neck high door all the way, she entered the enclosure. She’d assumed Sean had left it ajar, but on closer inspection, she realized it was as she suspected: Someone had been working here and not too long ago.

“I’ve got to get out of here and find Sean fast before someone finds us.” She retreated several steps, and then bumped into the pitchfork. It hit her on the arm. “Ouch!”

Just as she went to rub the sore spot she heard a familiar voice yell out, “Hey, who’s in here?”

Devon. Damn, what is he doing here? Oh, my God, Sean, keep exploring for hours like you normally do. Just this once don’t listen to me and come back too soon. Clasping her hand over her mouth she tried to cover up her sudden raspy breaths. Maybe if I keep quiet he’ll go away, and then I’ll sneak out and go find my son before Devon discovers the truth.

Devon, clutching the cat under one arm, strained to hear the voice again. I know I’m not imagining it.

“Come on out, I know you’re hiding in here. It’s just a matter or time before I find you.” Nothing.

Advancing slowly into the dimness, Devon swept his gaze over the tops of the stalls to see into the hidden recesses. He held onto the cat, figuring the animal would alert him to a presence before he came upon it.

As he drew even with the stall he’d left the equipment in, meowing sliced the air. Devon did a double take as he spotted dark hair. “Out,” he demanded to the trespasser, and then to his new feline friend, said, “Good, Cat.”

As the figure emerged, stunned wonder rushed through Devon. “Jewel?”

Her gaze landed on his bare chest, and then quickly shifted away. The heat she’d left behind seared him to his toes. She planted her hands on her hips, drawing his eyes to the way her jeans hugged her. “What, may I ask, are you doing here, Devon Marshall?”

It sounded as if she was the queen of the manor. “I think you should be answering the same question for me, missy.”

He watched as she stuck her chin out, but even in the grayish light he witnessed a streak of fear flash across those expressive eyes of hers. Is she afraid of me? Something twisted inside of him at the thought.

“Listen, Jewel, I’m not about to have you arrested or anything, so don’t worry.”

Confusion chased across her delicate features. “Why should you? I haven’t done anything illegal.”

“Trespassing on private property is a crime.”

She crossed her arms in front of her, making him highly aware of how much fuller her breasts had become. He swallowed hard.

One of her perfectly arched brows rose. “You never cared when the Wainwrights owned it. Since when did you become concerned about the new owners of this place anyway?”

That annoyed him. Oh, he cared all right, cared about how her father had been ruining his father’s house and business. She’d just been a dreamer, wrapped up in a fantasy world where everything would miraculously work out all right. Not him, the realist, he knew the score. “Do you want an exact time or date?” he baited, still bristling at the stark differences that he realized would always come between them.

“Either one will do.”

“Let’s see, yesterday was Saturday, and I think Gil handed me the papers around two or so. You figure it out.”

The color drained from her face. She dropped her hands to her sides, curling her fingers into her palms. “You? You’re the new owner?”

“Got it in one.” Her obvious shock should have pleased him, anything to wipe that high and mighty look off her face, one she’d never before used on him, but somehow it made him a little sick to his stomach.

Her breaths came in short pants as if she was having trouble grasping the situation. “That’s…that’s what you meant about your family’s reputation, wasn’t it? You’re trying to buy it back.”

“I’ll do whatever it takes.”

She swung her head around, her gaze searching out different portions of the stables, and then swiftly moving on to another. “Does this mean you’re moving back to town? Of course it does. Oh, my God!” Finally, she focused on him as she inched backwards. “Don’t worry, I won’t be back. I’ll go now.”

“Hold up.” He moved forward as she retreated. “Listen, we’re adults now we don’t have to act as if we’re doing anything wrong if we happen to see each other.”

“Mom, you gotta come see the rusty junk I found in the shed.” A young boy’s voice grew closer as he came near the stables.

A mixture of shock and confusion rained down on Devon. “Mom?”

If he’d thought Jewel had been pale before it was nothing compared to the pasty complexion she wore now. Fear etched itself into every one of her features. Pure terror was captured in her eyes as if she faced immediate danger.

A slash of raw jealousy invaded his belly. He must have clutched the cat too tight; a screech came from the animal he still held. Easing his hold, Devon asked, “You’re a mom, Jewel? When? With who?” Who the hell had she let that close to her?

A stillness wrapped around Jewel and him as gravel crunched beneath the boy’s footsteps. Then, when he entered the building, the hollow pounding of boards rent the tension-filled air.

Squinting, Devon looked over her shoulder, trying to get a clear view of her son. He silently cursed the darkness and what it hid.

In only seconds the tall boy slowed his steps. “Mom, you all right?”

She swallowed hard. “Yes.” In a hoarse voice, she said to Devon, “I’d…I’d like you to meet…Sean.”

“Sean? Jewel, just like my dad?”

“I named him after your father.”

The boy finally drew level with Jewel. Standing close, he clasped her hand, clearly showing his mother support.

A wave of total disbelieve shot through Devon as he stared at a replica of himself when he was just a child. Her son is my son!

“Dad?”


Chapter Four

Blood roared in his ears. Speechless, Devon faced Jewel, looked at the boy, and then down at the small, outstretched hand.

“It’s nice to meet you, sir. My mom’s told me a lot about you.” The unmistakable quiver in Sean’s voice pierced Devon’s heart.

Instincts kicked in. He clasped the hand offered to him, noting how his nearly swallowed the kid’s whole. But he marveled at the strength his son possessed. My son. Reluctantly he let go of his flesh and blood.

“Is this your cat?”

“He sort of adopted me.”

“Have you named him yet?”

He chuckled. It came out rusty and strained. “I can’t seem to come up with anything he likes.” Devon turned to Jewel for help on how to converse with the child. He did a double take; she seemed as if she was going to faint dead away. “Sean, maybe you could give it a shot. And while you’re at it, do you think you could feed him some more milk?”

Sean lifted the cat from Devon’s arms, cradled him close, and then scratched his head. “Cool. He looks like the color of charcoal or ashes. How’s Coal sound?” The feline meowed twice, giving notice of his dislike.

“It’s one meow for yes and two for no, so I guess its back to the drawing board. Ah…the milk’s in the cooler in the kitchen.”

“Oh, yeah.” Twisting to Jewel, he asked, “It is okay, Mom, isn’t it?”

“Sure, honey.”

Devon waited for Sean’s footsteps to fade before he began his line of questioning. Dawning beamed bright. So many things fell into place like the pieces of a puzzle. “He’s the reason why your old man disowned you.”

She held up a trembling hand. “Please, can’t we do this another time? I don’t think I’m up to this right now.”

Needing answers, he pressed her, “I’ve waited twelve years-”

“A few more hours, or days even, won’t hurt then.”

A needle of conscience poked his gut as she hugged herself tightly. Raking a hand through his hair, he said, “I don’t want to wait. Put yourself in my shoes, Jewel. I just found out I’m a father. Think of how I feel with all these things whirling around in my head.”

For a brief moment, she locked gazes with him. His middle clenched at the moisture gathering on her long, dark lashes. “I’m sorry, Devon. I never meant to hurt you. Not then and not now.”

Shockwaves rolled over him. “Then? You knew, didn’t you? You knew you were pregnant when I left and you didn’t tell me.”

She flinched. “I suspected.”

The betrayal she’d dealt him years ago intensified a hundred fold. “Why didn’t you say something, anything?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “You didn’t want me to know, that’s why.”

Disgust crowded in his throat and he had all he could do not to explode. Instead, he turned abruptly, and then walked away.

Exiting the stables, he headed toward the house. Her hurried footsteps followed him.

A tiny hand wrapped around his bare forearm, sending delicious shivers up his spine. “Devon, wait.”

He halted, trying to shake off the silky fingers along with the unwanted sensations coursing through his body.

“It’s not like you think.”

Whipping around, her clasp falling away, he asked, “No? Then tell me exactly what it was like, because, for the life of me, I can only figure I was never good enough for you.”

Wide, violet eyes blinked in stunned wonder. “That’s not true.”

“Then why couldn’t you tell your father about us when we first got involved?”

“He’d have never understood. I tried later. But you wouldn’t let me.”

“It was too late.” Devon gritted his teeth, trying to grab hold of the last vestiges of reason through the hazy fog of anger. “Even now you refuse to admit it. I didn’t have the money you loved so dearly.”

She blanched, and then shook her head. “No,” she said as if in pain.

“Oh, yes.” A seed of an idea sprouted in his mind. I can take care of Jewel and the son I should have been taking care of all along. And I can have everything I’ve ever wanted. Leaning close, he leveled her with a look. “But it’s all changed now. The tables have turned. I have what you want and you have what I want.”

Frowning, she asked, “I do?”

“Without a doubt.” My family’s reputation will be restored with the next generation. “Sean.”

Horror chased across her face, and then she cupped a hand over her mouth. Denial shone in her stare.

“I’d say it was a fair exchange, Jewel. My money and this house, for a chance for me to help raise my son.” He shrugged his shoulder. “Well, you will have to endure me as your real husband. Do you think you can do that for our son?”

Dropping her trembling hand, she appeared shell-shocked. “Are you proposing again?”

***

Every nerve and fiber in her body vibrated in dazed disbelief as Jewel walked into the kitchen with Devon on her heels. There was no sign of Sean or the cat.

The emptiness closed in, and the old clinging scent of baking sugar cookies rushed up to her. The awkwardness that had descended in the yard moments ago clung to her like a second skin. Shivering, she rubbed her arms, hoping to restore some warmth to her numb body.

“Cold?” He sounded as if he actually cared.

Stopping abruptly, she threw over her shoulder, “I’m fine, thanks.” Terrified, was more like it.

Repetitive clomping bounced down the stairs, alerting her to Sean’s whereabouts. He entered the room a few seconds later with the cat draped around his neck. A guilty flush stained his cheeks. “I was just exploring.”

So much like your father, always curious, always searching for something.

“Did you find anything interesting?” Devon’s rich voice washed over her.

Sean’s face lit up. “I found your gear on this really cool bed.” He turned to Jewel, dislodging the animal. The cat leapt to the floor to perform figure eights through his legs. “Mom, you should see this bed. It’s built in under a window like a window seat, but it’s way bigger.”

Surprise lanced through her as she jerked her head to Devon. My old room. He quirked an eyebrow at her as if daring her to challenge his choice. The accompanying smile sparked a curl of heat coiling low in her abdomen. Her heart rate accelerated, thumping in her chest as his hooded gaze spoke of endless delights they had shared and, if it were up to him, they would soon share again.

Tearing herself away from his hypnotic stare, she cleared her throat, and then said to Sean, “Next time ask permission first before searching someone else’s house, all right?”

His scuffed his brand new sneaker along the scarred hardwood floor. “Sorry.” Sneaking a peek at his father, he asked, “Is this your place or are you just working here?”

“It’s mine.” The ring of pride in his answer could not be mistaken.

“Cool. So, you gonna fix it up and stuff.”

Devon nodded, leaning a hip against the counter and folding his arms across his chest. “I’ve got several of my crews showing up tomorrow to begin work.”

Frowning, Jewel asked, “Your crews?”

Twisting to her, he captured her gaze, holding steady. “My partner and I have a construction firm based in Texas. We travel all over the country working on special projects, mostly custom homes for the wealthy. I also design software programs for the industry.”

“No way!” Sean beamed from ear to ear.

“Way.” Devon answered with a smile in his voice, breaking the connection with her.

“Wait until I tell Kev He won’t believe it. Oh, Kev’s my best friend. He doesn’t have a dad, well…he does, but his folks are divorced and his dad’s in the Navy, so he hardly ever gets to see him.”

Jewel processed the fact that Devon had carved out a life of his own. Part of her applauded him for going from penniless to an obviously rich man. The other half shriveled up inside at the assumption he was like all the other power hungry, well-to-do men she’d encountered over a lifetime, including her father. Would he take time for Sean or be like dad who ignored me because business and making the almighty buck was always more important?

As her son and Devon talked about computers, Jewel noted the jubilation written all over Sean’s face. He’d suffered his whole life not having a man in his world. She’d tried to fill the void, but knew the impossibility of it. No one could take the place of someone’s father. Haven’t I learned that first hand? And Devon had, too.

A hollow ache behind her rib cage came to life, for her son, for herself. Her little boy had shouldered too many responsibilities trying to take care of her, thrusting himself into adulthood far beyond his time. He was missing his childhood. He’s growing up too fast.

“Mom? Mom?”

Shaking off the well of despair that nearly engulfed her, she focused on Sean. “What were you saying?”

“It’s okay if dad has dinner with us, isn’t it? I mean you did put that big roast in the crock pot and everything.” He waved a hand around the room, pointing out the disrepair. “And all he’s got is this for now.”

Smiling tightly, she nodded. “Sure.” With that she acknowledged the obvious. Sean needs his father. I can’t do anything about my own problem with mine, but I do have the power to give him what he needs the most: Devon. And, by the looks of it, Devon needed him.

Devon winked at her, clearly sensing her unease, yet staking a silent claim over his son, over her.

Something churned inside of her. A long buried desire sprang forth. A tiny pocket inside of her yearned for a man who wanted her, who could fall in love with her. Now, gauging Devon’s relaxed, triumphant stance, she suspected she’d have to settle for a man who needed what only she gave him: The Wainwright sterling reputation in exchange for his redemption. His trophy.

Did she dare put her heart in harm’s way?

***

Inhaling, Devon relished the mouthwatering scents of pot roast, vegetables, baked apples, and cinnamon that still permeated her blue and white kitchen. The mingled scents reminded him of his impressions of a loving home, something he’d never had himself.

Collecting the dirty dishes from the small round table, Devon sensed the swelling tension mount between Jewel and him. She washed dishes, her back stiff and straight. She doesn’t want me here, invading her space.

He couldn’t help but linger over her glossy black hair, small waist, and softly rounded hips in form-fitting jeans. Nerve endings danced as he imagined holding her in his arms again and caressing every inch of her lush body.

Trying to shake off the invisible web of passion swirling around him, he hefted a stack of crockery. As plates rattled together and silverware clinked, Devon took stock of her home. From the outside, the two-story duplex blended into all the rest in the long row of what once were factory houses. But he’d bet good money that the vibrant color scheme and plant strewned cozy atmosphere she favored set hers above the rest.

“Hey, Dad, what kind of yellow did you say your Corvette is? Kev wants to know,” Sean yelled from upstairs, having begged to be excused only minutes before so he could phone his best friend.

A smile tugged at his lips and his heart expanded. Dad. “Competition yellow. Hey, ask him and his mom if he can take a spin with us in, say, half an hour.”

He witnessed the slight flinch in Jewel’s shoulders as he drew near. A waft of roses tickled his nostrils. Her scent. In her stockinged feet the top of her head just about reached his chin. Dreams of her tucking her head in the space between his jaw and shoulder flashed through his mind.

Trying to banish his wayward musings, he admitted, “In spite of what you may think, I’m not about to strangle you. Although, I have to admit, it did cross my mind while we were in the stables.”

She swiveled to face him, encountering his gaze. Just as quickly, she turned away. But not before he detected the flash of something deep in her eyes. Fear? Guilt? Despair?

Her fingers brushed his as she reached for the pile of dishes. A current blazed up his arm at the soft touch. She gasped, apparently feeling a similar reaction.

A tightness knotted in his belly, part desire, part anger. “Talk to me, Jewel. You can’t go on trying to ignore me forever.”

A sigh escaped her parted lips, lips that used to taste of strawberry lip-gloss. He wondered if they still would. As she submerged the dirty plates in the steaming water some of the stiffness in her eased. “I hate being part of your vendetta. I’ve got nothing to prove to this town.”

“Well, I do.”

Turning to him, with suds dripping from her hands, she asked, “Why? What does it matter what they think? Why should you care anyway? You turned your back on everyone twelve years ago.” Pain laced her words, jabbing him in the gut.

Gritting his teeth, he said, “I was tossed out, on my ear. Or have you conveniently forgotten that?”

She squeezed her eyes shut as if trying to block out that night. “Oh, I remember. Very distinctly, as a matter of fact.”

“So, I didn’t have a choice.”

“Damn you, Devon, you had a choice, but you took the hard way just as you always did.”

“And you took the easy way out just as you always did.”

Opening her eyes, she sought his. Agony chased across her delicate features. “Maybe I did, but it was all I knew back then. All right, I confess, I was a spoiled little rich girl who got anything she ever wanted.”

“Including the stable boy,” he sneered.

Jewel jerked back. All the color drained from her face. “My God, is that what you thought?”

He raked a hand through his hair. “What else was I supposed to think? You asked. He coughed it up. I was just one more thing for you to add to your collection only daddy didn’t know until the end.”

She grabbed a handful of his shirt, wetting the fabric. “And he let us both have it, didn’t he? Why wouldn’t you tell him the truth about us then? Why wouldn’t you let me?”

Curling his hand around her tiny wrist, he felt the rapid pulse point. Is it from being near me or the heated conversation?

Feeding her a dose of unvarnished reality, he watched closely for her reaction. “I didn’t want to go on being his slave. Or yours.”

She pulled free of him. Wide, hurt violet eyes and the tinge of gray pallor invading her complexion should have brightened his nasty mood, but all it did was convince him how vindictive he could be at times, especially around Jewel. Silently, he berated himself.

“I never treated you like that, Devon. Never.”

He couldn’t deny what she said. She never deliberately regarded him as such. But her father had. He’d also flaunted how he had taken Devon’s mother as his mistress in order for them to keep a roof over their heads.

And at eighteen he’d come to see the chains that passion created. He’d have done anything for Jewel. And he had. The last time he’d seen her he’d almost given in to her demands, but he had yanked himself back moments before disaster struck. Moments before I bowed down to her old man and lost my self-respect, my dignity.

Dawning seemed to enter her expression. “You were testing me, weren’t you? To see if I’d cave in to his pressure, his demands to know some answers or to follow your instructions and remain quiet. You had to play it out in front of my father to show him the hold you had over me.”

“It worked.” Wainwright had lost control. And, for a brief moment, I won.

Deep grooves between her eyebrows marred the smooth skin. “At what cost? Us? What we had together? Did you ever really care about me or were you playing a game then, too? You once said you loved me. Was it just empty words to manipulate me to go along with your revenge? And what about…”

When she trailed off, he glimpsed the raw pain washing over her features. No, it wasn’t false words. Everything I felt was real, too damn real. But how could he admit it to her without revealing the guarded part of him, the part that couldn’t afford to be vulnerable to anyone ever again. I’ve been hurt too many times already.

She must have seen something telling in his carefully controlled expression; she retreated a step, and then another. An emptiness echoed inside him at the loss. Clutching the edge of the sink in a white-knuckled grip and taking short, quick breaths, she asked, “So, our secret marriage all those years ago meant nothing to you.”


Chapter: Five

Two hours later, Devon paced her living room. The cranberry painted walls, matching sofa, multi-colored quilt hanging on the wall, and several carefully placed plants created warmth.

A deep buried chord struck inside him as the feeling of coziness enveloped him. In his line of work, he’d toured hundreds of completed houses in the last decade and never had any professionally decorated interior conveyed such a heartwarming atmosphere.

Muffled voices floated to him through the thin ceiling. My son. My wife.

Blowing out a hot breath, Devon released the pent-up anger at her, at himself. He’d come down hard on her. Twelve years of suppressed emotions would do that to a man. Holding onto it for so long had only made it worse. Discovering he’d been a father all that time added another layer of injustice.

First and foremost, he owed her an apology. He’d set things right between them. Hadn’t he been a master of righting wrongs all his life? The worst wrong of all, the one to his father’s tarnished reputation, needed to be addressed soon. How could he begin to unravel the mystery of the twenty-year-old embezzlement charge?

Jewel, his mind whispered what he’d failed to admit before arriving in town. He’d suspected she held some clues to the puzzle, unknowingly or otherwise. She had one more thing he wanted: answers.

Shaking his head to clear it of the daunting task of approaching the sensitive subject with her, Devon turned his attention back to his present situation. After the apology he’d thank her for keeping the baby when she’d been all alone and for doing a damn fine job of raising Sean.

Smiling inwardly, he allowed his mind to wander to their offspring. Sean, polite, well-mannered, unspoiled, protective of his mother, possessed many of the qualities Devon admired. I could never have accomplished half of what she has with him.

A bead of perspiration slid down the back of his neck as nagging doubts chased through his thoughts. Will she allow me to participate in raising our son now? Will she come live with me and be my wife in every sense of the word?

***

In the dimly lit room, Jewel hugged Sean tight, dropping a kiss on the top of his head. “Okay, Champ, to bed with you.”

He climbed the ladder to the top bunk bed. “I can’t wait to tell the guys at school tomorrow about dad. Man, he’s the coolest and his Vette is awesome, even Kev said so.”

Bending, she picked up the trail of clothes littering his floor, and then deposited them in his hamper. “Oh, he did, did he? And it’s important to you what your friends think?” Just like Devon.

Blankets and sheets rustled as he pulled them back. “Oh, Mom,” he whined as if she didn’t understand guy things. “Of course it is.”

Sighing, she tried to bite her tongue. Moving to the bed, she smoothed the covers, and then drew them up under his arms. “I’m glad you’ve got lots of friends, Sean. But remember, it’s what’s inside that counts the most.”

He thumped his pillow a couple of times before settling down. “You keep saying that stuff over and over again.” He paused for a moment. “Mom?” It came out almost a whisper.

“What, honey?”

“I’m happy dad’s here. I just knew he’d come back one day, even if he didn’t know about me, I knew he’d be back to see you.”

Tears smarted the backs of her eyes. He’d never told her this dream. “Why’s that?”

“‘Cause you’re way too pretty and nice. All my friends say so. Well…they do say sometimes you act like you might not care, especially when someone says something nasty about you, but you really do, you just hide it, that’s all.”

Stunned wonder robbed her of speech for a moment. How did he know so much? I’ve been so careful to keep it concealed.

Sean cut into her thoughts, saying, “I set them straight though, so it’s all cool now. Hey, Mom, do you think dad thinks I’m a sissy for wearing these pajamas with cars all over them?”

His question held more than curiosity, it begged for assurance, acceptance.

“No way. But if it bothers you, we can always buy you some new ones.”

She detected the release of his breath in the darkened room. “Cool.” Another pause, and then he asked, “Do…do you think he likes me…even just a little?”

“What’s not to like?” she hastened to answer, to leave no doubt in his mind.

“I hoped so, but I wasn’t sure.”

Her heart twisted, wringing out all her hesitations on Devon’s request. Only the gift and joy she could give her son remained behind. What do my concerns matter in the face of granting my son happiness?

“Hey, there’s something I need to talk to you about.” She stood at the head of his bed, a couple feet from him as he propped his head in his hand with his elbow digging into the spongy pillow.

“It sounds serious. Is this about me interrupting you two earlier, you know, right after I hung up with Kev? You seemed kind of mad at each other.”

A tickle of fear edged his last statement. How should she reply? “We were. We haven’t seen each other in years and I think all that old stuff has just been building up inside. We’re trying to sort it all out. Um…that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Your father wants us to be a real family.”

He sat up quick. “Really? Awesome! Wait till I tell Kev and the guys. Man, all my wishes are coming true in one day.”

His jubilation made everything right. She’d give this to him and prayed both their hearts were never broken again by Devon Marshall.

Five minutes later, Jewel walked gingerly across the tiled kitchen floor. Through the living room archway, she watched Devon pace and drag a hand through his thick, wavy hair. Curling her fingers into her palms, she stopped the urge to go to him and feel the satiny texture. But she didn’t halt her exploration of his lean, muscular body in white shirt and black jeans. Contained power, the thought sprang to her mind. What would it be like to touch him, kiss him again? Heat gathered low in her middle.

“Devon.” It came out sultry. She swallowed hard when he swiveled to face her, his gaze locking with hers. A light flashed in the depths of his eyes, telling her without words the male awareness sparking to life.

Breaking the enticing connection, she moved to the sofa on shaky legs. “We need to talk.”

In three long strides, he reached her side. The cushion dipped when he took a seat, bringing his thigh in contact with hers. Warmth branded her, but she restrained herself from pulling away. A part of her longed for the caress.

“Can I go first?” he asked, startling her at the polite request and the dramatic change in him. Turning to him, she nodded, and he continued, “I’m not good at this part, so bear with me, all right? I’m sorry. I said some pretty vile things to you–”

“You didn’t mean them?”

He blew out a breath. The gust of hot air fanned across her face, dragging up other times when he’d done the same only he’d been deep inside her then, breathing heavy. The coil in her abdomen tightened, sending an ache straight to her core.

“I meant them.”

His reply brought her crashing down. Confusion took hold. “But you said you were apologizing. What for?”

“For being an ass.”

The tension fizzled out of her. “Well, I didn’t know people had to say they were sorry for that. Man, I’ve got a lot of apologies to make.”

“Join the club, dollface.” A smile laced his words, but it was the easy use of his nickname for her that warmed the coldest regions of her heart.

“I always liked your strange brand of humor,” she said wistfully, leaning back and tucking her feet beneath her. Grabbing a nearby pillow, she hugged the soft fabric to herself.

He shot her a glance. “Why, because it was sometimes directed at myself?”

When will that chip fall off your shoulder? “No, because it held the truth.”

Obviously restless, he rose, and then paced the room. He pointed upstairs. “You’ve done a good job with him.”

“And that surprises you, doesn’t it?”

A sly grin transformed his features, making her breath hitch in the back of her throat. “Frankly, it does.”

Dragging her mind back to their conversation, she listened to the rest of what he had to say. He shrugged. “You can’t blame me for assuming that, not when you acted like a brat around your dad.”

Cringing inwardly and clenching her eyes shut, she said, “I wanted…to be loved.” There, you’ve admitted it to him and yourself. Only he doesn’t know you still want to be loved. And he won’t, not if I can help it. I’ll never give anyone that kind of power over me again. A drop of moisture trickled out of the corner of her eye and she swiped it away.

“So how did getting him to buy you things make him love you?” A mixture of confusion and curiosity mingled in his question.

Focusing on him, she tried to explain, “After my mom died I knew that the only way I got his attention was when I’d ask for something. The mention of money always captured his interest. Otherwise, he ignored me.”

Devon leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb to the little office she kept in the next room. Crossing his arms over his chest and one booted ankle over the other, he said gently, “Except for when you messed up that one time.”

Jerking her head back as if slapped, she continued the horrible story, “You tried to take the blame for me.”

“But you wouldn’t let me. Oh no, you spoke right up when he accused me of leaving the corral gate open.”

Jewel frowned. “But it was my fault. I did it, not you.”

“It would have been a hell of a lot easier if you’d left it alone. The one time you chose to tough it out and you paid dearly for it.”

“You mean the mare paid dearly, don’t you?” Pain throbbed in her voice.

“You both did,” he choked out, clearly reliving the scene just as she was doing now.

No, Daddy, don’t make me do it! Please don’t make me shoot her! Her own screams echoed in her mind, careening through time to haunt Jewel to this day.

“The bastard!” Venom rang in his words.

Tears ran down her face. Through gritted teeth, she bit out, “He wanted to teach me a lesson.”

“We could have fixed her. Her leg was broken, not her spirit.” Emotion clogged his voice, reaching out to share her suffering now as he did then. “It would have taken a lot of money and time.” He shrugged. “The odds weren’t good. Infection could have set in. She’d never had been the same again. She may have died, anyway. But he could have tried.”

Covering her ears, Jewel flinched as if the shot blasted this minute, not thirteen years ago. The stench of gunpowder filled her nostrils. And the guttural cry of the horse twisted her heart in agony. Her whole body vibrated with the kickback of the rifle, her hands going numb.

“Jewel,” Devon whispered, shoving the pillow aside and gathering her in his arms, yanking her back to the here and now.

Burying her face in his hard chest, she clung to him. “It was so awful, Devon.” Sobs racked her body.

He said softly in her ear, “I know, dollface, I know. And it still hurts to think about it.”

A dagger sliced through Devon, ripping him in two. He eased back on the sofa, lifting Jewel in his lap. Pulling the long, silky strands of hair off her face, he felt the dampness. With an awed reverence, he gingerly brushed the pad of his thumb across her satiny cheek, erasing the moisture there. So soft, so pale.

“I should have done more.” Frustration welled inside him.

Teary violet eyes found his. His heart hitched and his middle clenched.

Shaking her head, she said, “No, Devon, you did everything you could have. When you tried to interfere he knocked you to the ground. I thought he’d killed you. You were so still for so long and I saw the trickle of blood…”

“Lord, I hated him for forcing you to do that.”

He felt the shiver of revulsion that coursed through her and drew her closer. Gently, he stroked her back, trying to ease the bunched up muscles and trying to soothe her troubled soul.

“I hated him, too. But, I also loved him. I know it sounds strange, but it’s the truth.”

A part of him, the part that carried his father with him, knew exactly what she meant. “I still hate mine for dying on me and leaving nothing for my mother and me.” I can’t believe I just told her that. He waited for her reaction, hoping she wouldn’t try to dig deeper into the hidden recesses of his soul; he was afraid she’d find herself there.

She sighed, relaxing into him. A hint of her rose perfume drifted to him, tugging at the embers of desire swirling low in his gut.

When she tucked her head into his neck, Devon thought he’d experienced a little piece of heaven. Closing his eyes, he relished the soft curves pressing into him.

“That brought us together,” she murmured. Her sultry voice did the strangest things to him.

“I came to your window that night for the first time.” He chuckled as the memory rushed back. “I thought I’d have to toss a hundred stones and break the glass before I got your attention.”

“I’d been crying.” Sniffing and scrubbing her eyes, she pulled back, and then got up to walk the length of the room.

His empty arms ached for her to return. But, by the look of her squared shoulders, he sensed the wish would go unanswered. Devon leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs and bowing his head to collect his composure.

“Do we have to talk about the past anymore? It’s not a subject I’m partial to.” A chill entered her tone, erecting walls between her and him.

What had happened to the woman who’d revealed so much minutes ago? Did she regret it? Probably. “It’s not like we can sweep it out the door like yesterday’s trash, Jewel. It’s not that easy.”

She heaved a long, drawn out sigh. “God, I wish it was.”

Raking a hand through his hair, he silently agreed. “And if we could, would I be tossed out, too?”

Spinning around, she found and held his stare. Hers revealed a wealth of conflicting emotions that sliced clear through him.

“Maybe,” she whispered. “If only to stop the way we keep hurting each other. I don’t want to feel this…this aching inside of me any more, Devon.”

He not only glimpsed her misery, he throbbed with his own. “Why do we do it then?”

“We can’t help ourselves? Or we can’t seem to break this connection we share? I don’t know. I wish I could pull the answers out of a hat.”

Standing, he walked to her, and then jammed his hands in his pockets when he stood only a foot away. Longing swept over him. He yearned to touch her again, to taste those sweet lips one more time. “Maybe we need to find the answers together. Have you thought about what I said earlier?”

Dropping her gaze to his chest, she said, “I can barely think of anything else. I want the best for Sean.”

His middle clenched. “And I’m not it, is that what you’re implying?”

She brushed past him, leaving a trail of heat blazing down his arm where she’d touched. Turning, he noted Jewel hugging herself as she faced the lovely quilt.

“I don’t know who you are, who you’ve become. I don’t even know if I knew the real you years ago. You could say the same for me, Devon.”

Bile rose to his throat, nearly choking him. “So, your answer is no then.”

“I didn’t say that.”

Confused, he pointed out, “You’re talking in riddles. Yes or no, will you renew our wedding vows so you and Sean can come live with me?”


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