It’s been years, but Josie Tate is still running–from the past and a tragic secret, but mostly from herself. Then life conspires to bring her full circle, back to the one place on earth she doesn’t want to be. All she wants is to make a quick, clean getaway, but runs instead into Cade Harper. Between his unrelenting pursuit and the unwelcome ghosts of the past, Josie’s life implodes. As she confronts her guilt and the tragedy that haunts her, one thing seems clear: her running days are over.
Hot damn. Josie hoped the words stayed in her head. Whatever picture she’d conjured—something along the lines of old and weathered like the stone in the paddock walls—this didn’t fit.
He was tall, built like a rock and with just the right amount of muscle in all the right places. He stood there bare-chested, the missing blue T-shirt pushed through a loop of his jeans. She was wholly unprepared for the effect that all that lean, well-toned muscle seemed to be having on her ability to concentrate on exactly why she’d come all this way.
Catching her breath, she tore her eyes away from that sculptured chest and traced the contoured line of his chin. His face could only be described as rough-hewn, even rock-like, but the strong, angular features softened around his broad grin—was he laughing at her?—and crinkled at the corners of a pair of the greyest, most intensely interested eyes she had ever encountered.
Or, rather, which had ever encountered her. In all fairness, brief though the moment might have been, Josie had been examining every inch of him. She just couldn’t help herself.
But he’d wasted no time in returning the favour, and she began to feel wholly unprotected, naked almost, in the long clinging skirt and close-fitting cotton top that had seemed appropriately simple and even neutral a few hours before.
She wished desperately for a moment that she’d opted for her usual baggy jeans and T-shirt then, crazily, liked the fact that she hadn’t. His slow, lazy examination seemed almost a caress, and she could feel her heart pounding and her throat closing with an emotion that she couldn’t even begin to explain.
Desperately, fighting back a confusion of panic, excitement and who knew what else, Josie forced herself to concentrate. He ranked, without doubt, as the most gorgeous—no the sexiest—man she had ever clapped eyes on. But then something else suddenly intruded. Something familiar, something…
The moment of recognition proved as unsettling as he did, but for very different reasons. For a split second she wanted to push the thought away, but the resemblance stood out unmistakably.
Matt had always leaned towards Sasha’s blonde good looks, except for his eyes. Like Emmy-Lou’s, their darkly-shaded grey was startling and fascinating all at the same time. But Em had a distinctive look, with her dark hair and none of Sasha’s pouting prettiness. Her beauty had a more defined quality that set her apart. She was…
She’s this man’s daughter.
Josie stiffened, allowing the rising tide of anger to engulf her. It was partly at herself for feeling the crazy, wild, stupid things barely a moment before, and partly at the impossible truth that this gorgeous, outrageously sexy man could be heartless enough to turn his back on his own children. And, stupidly, she felt inordinately angry at life for yet again being so damned cruel and unfair.
His eyes narrowed, obviously reading the sudden change in her. The teasing, almost devilish light had vanished. He seemed wary now, almost hostile.
“Who’s asking?” he said. Slowly, deliberately, like he needed to test the moment and to test her.
Josie felt her irritation rising. Why didn’t he simply come out and say it, dammit? I’m Stuart Harper. What dumb reason could he have for hedging? Unless, of course, he had some reason to be cautious. Alarm bells clanged dully in the back of her mind. She wanted to scream accusations, slap him. Anything had to be better than this stupid, stupid game.
“Jocelyn Tate,” she said, playing the game anyway. Like tennis. His shot. Her shot. The ball in his court now. Except, she reminded herself with an inner smugness that she kept hidden, it seemed set to end like basketball, with her delivering the final slam-dunk to end the match.
She waited, taut and silent, challenging him to respond with a bright, angry gaze and defiant tilt to her chin. His eyes turned watchful, careful, then suddenly cold, like something inside had clicked off and only an echo remained.
Finally, in a voice as flat and cold as his eyes, he answered. “My brother is dead.”
“No.” The whispered denial sounded like a shout in her head. She closed her eyes, screwed them tight, shaking her head as if this could somehow shake loose the truth and restore things to they way they had been before.
A part of her wanted to believe that he was lying, or simply avoiding having to acknowledge his guilt, but the rest of her knew it could only be the truth. It had to be the truth. No-one would lie about something like that.
The realization hit home. She felt the blood drain completely from her face and the sudden sagging sense of defeat, and reached her hand instinctively for the vehicle to steady herself. She felt her legs about to give in under her but seemed utterly unable to prevent it.
Then, with a muttered oath, he took a huge step forward to grab her around the waist, using his body to support her. His nearness, the faint tangy scent of aftershave and good, clean sweat, careened through her non-existent defences to leave her dizzy and disoriented.
Josie dug deep, fighting the urge to simply slip into the promised safety of that wonderful place of oblivion, and willed life and control back into her shaking legs. Somehow she found the strength to push away from him.
“You look like him.” The cry sounded almost as an accusation, sounded angry, bewildered, even hurt and definitely confused.
He just shrugged, too near to her still but now painfully distant. “We were twins.” It seemed ridiculously simple, as if it explained everything.
Josie bit back an hysterical laugh. Actually it did explain everything, like the twins and their uncanny resemblance to him. It would have seemed perfectly logical except that she had a stupidly crazy thought that twins usually skipped a generation. At least she thought so.
But it left a lot of other things unanswered. Like what the hell she ought to do now. Nothing could have prepared her for this. Not even her most bizarre imaginings had brought her to this new, crazy twist.
Escape emerged as the first thought that came to mind. She had to get away from there, to think. She couldn’t do that here, not with him so cold and close. But he stood blocking her path, trapping her in the narrow space between vehicle and garage wall. He looked like he had questions of his own that she didn’t want to answer, even if she could.
“What’s up, Cade?” A strong male voice broke the silence. Thankfully, Josie took the gap left by his surprised turn and made it into the open air.
“Hi, Dad. Miss Tate here is looking for Stuart.”
Josie groaned inwardly. One Harper man already made one too many. Now she had two to deal with, which really wasn’t encouraging given that the son was definitely a younger version of his father.
Then she noticed the older man’s hand clenched over the carved head of his cane. Stupidly, like some spoiled child, she had a momentary rush of gladness. At least one of them had a weakness, was halfway human. Then she felt guilty, like she always did.
“I’m sorry,” she said. It sounded brittle, and lame. “I wouldn’t have bothered you if I’d known.”
Harper senior smiled. She registered, stupidly, that the Harper genes ran strong, because he had Emmy’s smile, and it tugged painfully at her heartstrings. “It’s okay,” he said. “You didn’t know, and I guess there’s no harm done.”
If you only knew. The words almost came out, but she managed to pre-empt them with a shaky smile. She saw the perfect moment to escape, and almost managed it. But Harper senior had other ideas.
“Why are you looking for my son?”
The question surprised her. A sudden guilty flush coloured her cheeks. She felt like a schoolgirl caught in a lie, which wasn’t that far from the truth, of course, except for the schoolgirl bit. A schoolgirl would probably have confessed there and then, especially with those sharp, grey, not-missing-a-thing eyes fixed on her. And two pairs of them as well. But Josie Tate wasn’t about to confess to anything. Not now at any rate, and maybe not ever.
“It’s nothing, really,” she said, gathering the last of her strength—and her pride—in preparation for a hasty goodbye. “I’m so sorry to have intruded.” Josie recognised the undercurrent of panic in her voice, wanted to find the courage to stay and talk things out because a part of her knew that it would have to be done sooner or later. But reason and logic had been engulfed by a barrage of emotion and she desperately needed distance and quiet in which to think and regroup.
She walked then, briskly, determinedly, to her car. Thank goodness that she’d left it unlocked with the keys in the ignition, and that she’d had the sense to park facing down the driveway. She needed that quick getaway after all.
“Hang on a minute.” The voice rasped loudly behind her. Josie realised that Harper junior—Cade, or whatever his name was—had caught up with her “Wait.”
Josie didn’t. Fighting an overwhelming desire to run, she merely quickened her pace a little. And she almost made it, even had the door partially open, when a strong hand snaked across her to slap it shut.
“Dammit.” Her exclamation sounded as an instinctive sound of protest. She hadn’t even realized that he had covered the ground between them.
He leaned, now, with a hand on the door preventing her from opening it. In the gap under his arm, Josie could see Harper senior hurrying towards them and all her previous thoughts of weakness suddenly vanished. Evidently the Harper men had somehow managed to be exempt from expected human limitations because the old man, cane and all, had managed to cover ground with impressive speed.
“Look,” she said, summoning her best calm and reasonable and totally-in-control tone. “I’ve apologized, and I really do mean it sincerely. Why don’t you simply let me leave, and we can all put this behind us?”
“You didn’t answer the question. Why are you looking for Stuart?”
Josie tried again. “Like I said, it’s not—”
“Important.” He finished her sentence for her. “I know what you said. But it sure as hell seemed important back there when you nearly passed out on me. You looked like someone whose world had just exploded in her face.”
And that pretty much described exactly what had happened. But Josie didn’t intend going there. “It was the shock,” she explained, hoping that it sounded as reasonable to them as it did to her. “Which is understandable, given that…”
“Given that what?” Clearly he had no intention of giving it up. “I think you’d better come clean, Miss Tate. I’d have to be blind or a half-wit not to see that your visit is way more than a social call. There’s something going on, and if it involves Stuart I think we have a right to know.”
“He’s right, you know.” Harper senior had stepped up beside his son. He smiled gently, but to Josie, who now stood trapped between the two of them and her car, he seemed no less threatening. Good cop, bad cop, she thought acidly. And no prizes for guessing who’s who.