The letter sat next to the register behind the bar. It might as well have been a rattlesnake. It bore a sender’s name but no return address, though it was postmarked in Des Moines, Iowa. Denny DeVayne; Mel couldn’t remember if she’d ever seen her brother’s name written out before. She had seen his freakishly neat handwriting, and recognized that now. But he was part of the life she’d walked away from the second she’d turned eighteen, some eleven years earlier. Nothing good would be contained in that letter and she didn’t want to open it. So, treating it like the snake the letter reminded her of, Mel went out of her way to avoid it. She should just chuck it in the trash unopened.
But something stopped her. So it sat. Later, she would take it up to her apartment and put it with the other unopened letters; the ones she’d received since early May.
With a whistle on his lips and a spring in his step, Sean crossed the short distance from stable to house. It had been a good day. If he was very lucky it would be an even better evening, as long as he got his sorry tail to Valentine’s where Mel was tending bar.
Rounding the corner of the house, he pulled up short at the sight of the gawky redheaded teen leaning against the railing on the back step. His chin was propped on one hand. With the other hand, he fiddled with an MP3 player. When he saw Sean, he popped out his Earbuds.
Tinny voices and a heavy metallic beat blasted from the tiny speakers, painting the insane image of an all-cockroach rock band in Sean’s head. He raised an eyebrow. “Kid, you’re gonna go deaf.”
“Hi, Sean.” Ricky laughed nervously. “You sound just like Da—ah, Justin.”
Sean suppressed his smile at the kid’s near slip of the tongue. Though they weren’t related by blood, he’d settled into the role of Ricky’s big brother over the past year and a half, and it felt pretty good. The boy’s mother wasn’t in a position to take care of him and his grandparents had rejected him. Too bad for them. They didn’t know what they were missing. But their loss was the McGee family’s gain.
“Get locked out?” asked Sean.
Ricky looked up at the kitchen window, a pensive expression on his face. “They were doing it again. I didn’t want to go in.”
Sean sighed. He didn’t have to ask who “they” were or what they were doing.
Right on cue, the clatter of cookware being slammed together filtered through the kitchen window. Sean shied away from the back of the house in case the sound was followed by something heavy.
“I don’t need a babysitter!”
He flinched at the angry voice of his sister-in-law, Sandy, currently the sole feminine touch at the Cross MC ranch. He didn’t have to ask who she was yelling at. Only one person ticked her off that much these days.
“I’d just feel better if you weren’t out here alone.” And there he was, Sean’s brother, Ryan, trying to placate with a calm tone.
Sean grimaced and glanced at Ricky. “They been at it long?”
Ricky lifted his shoulders and heaved a huge sigh before he settled into a resigned slouch. “Since before I got home from work about ten minutes ago.”
The sound of breaking glass was followed by an angry shriek. “Oh! You are such a bossy mule!”
“What in Sam Hill are you two doing in here?”
“Oh, jeez. They got Dad’s attention. Now I don’t want to go in there.” Sean cocked his head at Ricky. The kid’s face was crowded with angst and confusion. It was hard enough being a kid of just seventeen without wondering if his happy home was going to remain happy, especially when the boy hadn’t had anything close to a happy home until he’d been almost sixteen. Sean shot him a conspiratorial grin. “If I show you the alternative entrance, do you promise not to use it for sneaking out at night?”
Ricky nodded emphatically. He gestured at his dark jeans and western shirt, the unofficial uniform for his job as busboy at Valentine’s Bar and Grill. “I just want to get out of these geeky clothes so I can chill.”
Sean tilted his head the other way. “I don’t know. . . .” Then he grinned again, because he really did know. Ricky was a pretty good kid, who tended to hang at home rather than go out and get in trouble. Sean, himself, had raised more Cain as a kid than Ricky did.
“But I’m fine,” said Sandy in the kitchen.
“Come on.” Sean led Ricky to the far side of the house.
The cottonwood tree had been standing since before Sean was born. It now soared close to a hundred feet with an impressive canopy that spread like an umbrella over the southern exposure of the house. That just happened to be the side Sean’s bedroom window faced. And one of the tree’s branches just happened to be growing right outside his window. There had been a few times as a teen when Sean had felt the need to sneak in after curfew.
He smiled, remembering how it had never done any good. Every time he’d made the climb to his window in the dark, he’d invariably snuck into his room to find his father lounging on his bed waiting for him. And one time in the middle of winter he’d come home to find Justin had nailed his window shut. After that, he’d taken his dad’s advice to use the phone when he was going to be late.
Sean cupped his hands beneath the lowest branch. “I’ll give you a boost.”
Ricky hesitated for a second. “I’ve never climbed a tree.”
It was always the little things that were the most telling. The little things that showed this kid hadn’t had anything close to a normal childhood. Every time one of those reminders popped to the surface, Sean felt the need to choke the living crap out of someone.
But now, he only shrugged. “Time to learn. See that lowest branch there? Grab onto that, wrap your knee around it, and pull yourself up. Then look for the next highest branch and do the same thing.”
Ricky placed a foot in Sean’s hands and Sean pushed him up. Then Ricky shimmied to the next branch. Sean smiled with approval. The kid was a natural.
“Sean, what are you doing out here?” The too-shrill voice of his sister-in-law was out of her normal character and somewhat akin to having shards of glass shoved beneath his fingernails.
He tried to smile but it felt weak. Slowly, he turned around. “Hi, Sandy.”
Fixing him with a knowing glare, Sandy folded her arms over an enormous belly.
Sean couldn’t keep his gaze from wandering there with a sort of morbid fascination. Man, had she gotten bigger since breakfast? And was it . . . moving? Sean’s stomach did a little flip of its own. “Wow! You’re looking really great.”
She stared at him in narrow-eyed silence until he looked away. “You didn’t answer my question. What are you doing back here?”
“I was just checking on some—things.”
“Checking on teaching Ricky how to climb in your window?”
Busted. Sean tried his most engaging smile. When she only glared at him, he gave up and sighed. “Okay, when I came in from the stable, he was just sitting out back because you and Ry were fighting. We wanted to give you some space.”
“We weren’t fi—” Sandy blew out a long, slow breath. She rubbed her forehead then ran her hand through her dark hair. “It’s okay. I know I’ve been mean lately.”
“No, not really—”
Her eyes narrowed.
“Okay, maybe a little. You’ve got a lot on your mind.”
“And an overprotective husband.” She smiled. “I love your brother, Sean, but he’s driving me crazy. If he can’t be with me, he makes sure someone else is with me. I’m never, ever, alone. I’m not going to break.”
Sean smiled. “I can talk to him if you want.”
She made a face and shook her head. “He’ll just say I went running to the Great Voice of Reason.”
Sean chuckled at her use of Ryan’s nickname for him.
“It’ll be over soon.” Sandy caressed her belly. “Then he’ll be able to be overprotective of the little one.”
More likely, his brother would just be doubly protective of the two of them. But Sean kept the thought to himself.
“How’s my horse? How’s Domingo? Ryan won’t let me even go visit him.”
Sean’s heart softened. He knew Sandy missed her horse. She and Ryan would never agree when it came to keeping the big roan. But everyone thought she was showing good sense to stay out of the stables completely in the last weeks of her pregnancy.
“I give him his daily apple and I swear he looks over my shoulder to see if you’re behind me.”
“I didn’t think I’d ever miss riding so much.” She sighed wistfully. “Is he getting enough exercise?”
“Every day.” Sean frowned. “But I’ve been thinking of seeing how he’ll take to Ricky. I’ve got a rehabber coming in Monday and it’s going to be pretty intense for a while with that one.”
“Oh, Ricky’s fantastic with horses. I think it’s a good idea to see how Domingo likes him.” Squeezing her eyes shut for a moment, Sandy rubbed her temples.
“You okay?” Sean took a closer look. She suddenly seemed very tired.
“Yeah,” she answered slowly. “Just a little headachy. Oh, and Dad and Ryan are going up to Jackson tomorrow to see the accountant about Ricky’s trust fund. Ryan’s going to ask you to babysit me.”
Sean smiled. “And you don’t like the idea.”
She heaved a sigh. “I’ve resigned myself to it. The thought of driving all the way to Jackson makes me nauseous. But they won’t leave me home alone, even though I’m perfectly capable of calling for help if I need to. Besides, according to the doctor, we’ve got at least three weeks. So you really don’t have to do anything but work with the stock the way you normally do.” She grinned. “You seeing Mel tonight?”
Her hormonal mood shifts were sometimes difficult to keep up with, but this time, it had been fairly straightforward. Okay, sister, consider the subject changed. He lifted a shoulder. “Maybe.”
Sandy fixed him with a knowing look.
Sean rubbed the back of his neck. “Yes.”
“You get around to giving her what she really wants yet?”
Sean blinked. What did Mel want? Had he missed something?
Sandy laughed. “Never mind. I can see you haven’t. If you need a birds and bees conversation. . .” She winked. “You should probably see your dad, since me and Ryan failed safe sex one-oh-one.” She patted her belly.
“Oh jeez!” He backed away a couple of inches. Man, he hated these conversations. Sean felt the heat rise into his face, and settled his hat lower over his eyes, refusing to take her bait.
Sandy’s laughter echoed against the back of the house. “Sean, I love you, but you are about as slow a mover as your brother is a fast one. How did you two turn out so opposite?”
He shrugged and shifted his feet.
Sandy pointed at the tree and smiled. “I’ll let you get back to checking on things. You don’t want to rush and end up falling.” She stepped to the base of the tree and peered upward. “Dinner’s on the table, Ricky.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ricky’s voice filtered through the few lingering autumn leaves.
Sean watched her waddle away. Shaking his head, he leapt into the air and snagged the lowest branch, swung his leg up and over, then pulled himself upright. Grabbing the next branch, his grip slipped and he almost fell. Almost being the important part, he acknowledged once he secured his position.
Climbing the tree again felt pretty good.
Melanie slipped Sean’s favorite draft in front of him with a smile. Just being near him made her heart somersault. His pale blond hair, so similar in shade to hers, was longer than usual. It curled on the ends and she wanted to get her fingers tangled in it. His jade green eyes watched her hand where she was wiping up a few droplets of water. She wished he’d watch something other than her hands, but she seldom caught him checking her out these days.
“Ry’s got me on Sandy-babysitting-duty tomorrow morning.” He swirled his beer, eyes down. Amber liquid sloshed against the edges of the mug. Mel reached for the rag beneath the bar, just in case, but he stopped the restless movement and took a drink.
“It can’t be that bad. It’s not like she’s a little kid you’ll have to chase around or even entertain.”
“That’s what she told me.” When he looked up, his engaging grin was back. “Though I’m not so sure about not having to chase her. She’s been on a tear through the house lately, getting the nursery ready, re-doing her and Ry’s room. She reorganized the kitchen cabinets and cleaned up the pantry today. Dad keeps complaining that he can’t find anything in the cupboards.”
Melanie giggled. “Maybe she’ll clean out the attic tomorrow.”
“Aw jeez, I hope not. Ry’ll kill me.” Sean took a drink.
“It’s a light crowd tonight,” Mel said, running a forefinger along Sean’s arm. “LeeAnn can close. Would you like to come upstairs for a while?”
He looked past Mel to the other barmaid. “How’s she working out?”
Mel shrugged and followed his gaze. LeeAnn Shannon wore her dark auburn curls in a pony tail that sprayed from the top of her head like a fountain. She wore heavy blue eyeshadow and dark eyeliner, probably under the mistaken impression that so much blue highlighted her pale blue eyes. She was full-figured and her tight blue jeans only emphasized the outline of her wide hips. A skimpy green top hugged her bustline just a little too tightly, showing off an extra roll under her bra. Earrings that appeared to be made of multicolored confetti strung together by thin gold wire dangled from her earlobes, almost to her shoulders. Mel could only hope pieces of that confetti didn’t drop into anyone’s drink. She’d stopped asking the girl to wear something with less likelihood to shed after her third day working at Valentine’s, since LeeAnn apparently wasn’t listening anyway.
Mel sighed. Sandy wouldn’t have tolerated the blatant defiance.
LeeAnn’s smile looked a bit forced as she slammed a shot down in front of one of the regulars. Mel wondered what the man had said to set the other girl off this time. She didn’t field the sexual innuendo and sometimes outright lewd suggestions very well.
Mel looked back at Sean and shrugged. “Well, she’s no Sandy but she’s a body to help with serving when she doesn’t call out.” Rubbing a finger back and forth along Sean’s arm, Mel was pleased to see goosebumps rise beneath her touch. “So how about it? You want to have some dessert in my place?”
Sean rubbed his chin, his “no” tell. Disappointment flared before he even answered. Most times she hated that her grifter father had taught her to read people so well. It usually just made her disappointment double up on her.
“I’d better get home.” Sean drained the last of his beer. “I don’t know what time Ryan wants to get started tomorrow but I’ll have stock to take care of before they leave.”
He glanced up at her and smiled. It was far from the look of heated desire she craved.
“I’ll walk you out.” She wished her heart didn’t feel like it had been trod on. Rejection sucked.
Mel snagged her sweater from just inside the kitchen while Sean waited. She crossed the room wishing she could carry off Sandy’s sexy saunter. Maybe then Sean would really see her. Sometimes he made her feel like someone’s vanilla-cream little sister.
“How’s the horse rehabbing going?” she asked as they traversed the parking lot.
“Really good, actually.” As he always did when talking horses, Sean became animated. “One of my rehabs is about to be put up for sale. Got some weight back on her. Sweet-tempered little thing now no one’s beating on her. I almost want to keep her for you.” He shrugged. “But you never really get much chance to come out and ride, I guess.”
Mel’s heart did a cartwheel. “I could make time to come out. If you’d like me to, that is.” She looked up at him as they approached his truck. “Would you like me to?”
Sean rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah! If you come out before next week we can see if you and Lacey get along.”
Gosh, he looked so happy. And that made her happy. When he leaned in for a kiss, she took a step forward and tucked herself tightly into his solid embrace where she always felt safe. He sucked in a breath but didn’t pull back. Feeling a little bold, she snaked her arms around his waist and slanted closer still.
The kiss started out very chaste as usual, but Mel was feeling courageous for once. As he began to pull back, she outlined his lips with her tongue. His hands on her shoulders tightened and he pulled her back against him, deepening their kiss, stroking her tongue with his. His breaths came in ragged gasps and he trembled.
Score one for the home team. Finally.
Mel’s nerve fibers buzzed like a hundred honey bees hitting the mother lode of purple flowering clover. She clutched his waist, shivering at the way his muscles jumped under her hands.
Sean slipped his hand beneath her sweater, around to the small of her back, and pulled her closer. His hand was hot through the thin material of her blouse.
A physical ache spurred by emotional need welled within her.
With a low, feral moan against her lips, Sean turned them around and pressed her against the door of his pickup. Her toes barely touched the ground. Mel angled her head for a deeper kiss and wrapped her arms around his neck. Sean hissed through his teeth when she wiggled.
He pulled back slowly, holding himself completely still for a minute. Then he let her slide down his body until her feet rested on the ground again.
“You’re killing me here, Mel,” he whispered, his voice quaking. “One of these days, we gotta do something about this—you and me.”
“It’s not so late yet. My room’s still open.”
That was the moment she lost him and she could have kicked herself. He stepped back a foot or so, kissed her on the forehead. His guard was back in place. They had just shared a very passionate embrace and he’d definitely been turned on. Now, if he felt any sort of desire for her at all, she couldn’t see it. Or feel it, the way he kept himself angled away from her. Darn it! He was so careful with her. Always keeping himself just one or two steps out of reach.
Mel sighed. She couldn’t remember a time since they’d been teenagers when she hadn’t wanted to be Sean’s girl. Yet they never seemed to get beyond a few heated kisses before he hightailed it in the opposite direction. Sometimes it was hard to tell if he really wanted to kiss her or if he was just being polite.
“Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow, then?” As always she felt a little anxious about his answer, though she usually tried to cover her anxiety with an attitude of nonchalance.
He smiled and gave her a peck on the cheek with one last warm hug. Then he rubbed the back of his neck and cast a sheepish glance her way. “Hope so.”
She breathed more easily when she caught his “yes” tell. He always seemed just a little on the shy side when he said yes to something that was important to him.
Sean waited for her to cross the parking lot again before he left. He probably didn’t know she routinely stood at the door and watched his taillights disappear.
Mel slid the sweater from her shoulders. A white envelope fell to the floor and she groaned. Her brother’s letter. LeeAnn must have seen it by the register and slipped it into her pocket.
Shaking her head, she tore open the envelope as she walked into the kitchen. The letter was typed and unsigned. If not for the address on the letter, written in her brother’s familiar careful script, it might have come from anyone. But it had come from her brother, and read simply, “You should be interested in this.”
Wearing a frown, she looked in the envelope, and pulled out an article cut from a newspaper. For no reason other than this was her family, her hands were shaking as she unfolded the clipping. The headline was to the point: Prominent Oklahoma City Attorney Indicted on Adoption Fraud and Baby Selling Scheme.
Letter and article slipped from Mel’s frozen fingers.
The sitting room light was still on when Sean pulled in to the ranch yard. That meant Ryan was waiting up for him. Aw, man, just what he probably needed and didn’t want. Sean kicked the door of his truck closed with more force than necessary.
“Dang, bro. Shoot it and put it out of your misery already,” said Ryan from the shadows.
Sean almost dropped his keys. “Jeez, man. If you’re gonna jump me, can it wait ’til we’re inside? It’s freezing out here.”
“It’s October. It’s supposed to be freezing.” A lighter flared, harshly illuminating Ryan’s face in the glow.
The acrid smell of a cigar wafted over Sean. “Didn’t you eat enough smoke when you worked in L.A.?” He started walking for the house.
Ryan took a puff. “You’d think. But I guess a year or so of chatting with Dad on the porch while he lights up got me in the habit.” He took another puff. “So what’s eatin’ at you tonight?” He stared at the lit end of the cigar. The gesture was so like their father’s, Sean groaned.
Sean tried to remember why he’d missed his brother for sixteen years. He sighed. May as well get it over with. “It’s Mel.”
Ryan frowned. “Get in a fight?”
“Nope. We never fight.” Sean blew out an exasperated breath. What the heck? Maybe talking it out would take some of his edge off. “She keeps hinting at wanting something more.”
Ryan stepped back to eye Sean with a critical eye. “More than what? Like she wants to get married?”
Sean stopped walking at the bottom porch step. “No, not exactly. As in she invited me to her place tonight, and not so we could watch a little TV.”
Ryan’s mouth fell open. The cigar he’d just lit tumbled to the ground in a shower of sparks, and with a muttered oath, he stooped to retrieve it. Then he scrutinized Sean. “And yet the man came home. Interesting. So, you told her no?”
“Why?” Ryan’s gaze drifted below Sean’s waist. “Everything—ah—all . . . works, right?”
Irritation flared. “Yes. Everything works. Get your mind out of the gutter, man. It’s not always about sex.”
Ryan’s face registered total disbelief. “It’s almost always about sex. You’ve been . . . um, seeing Mel steady for over two years now, right?”
Here it came. The big brother lecture about getting laid. Sean lifted a shoulder. “Yeah, ’bout that.”
“Nope. Never did the deed,” Sean said impatiently. “Satisfied?”
“No, I’m not satisfied!” Ryan took another puff of his cigar. Then he frowned. “Ah, when you say never, do you mean never-never or just never-with-Mel?”
Sean glared at his brother, just for one second wishing Ryan was back in L.A. “Jeez, Ryan! Not that it’s your business, but yes, I’ve had sex. It’s just—things are different with Mel.”
“You don’t like her?”
Sean turned, looked out into the darkness. “I love her. I want everything with her. I want what you and Sandy have with her.”
“Then I don’t get it,” said his brother, as if the answer was just that simple. “Ask her to marry you.”
Sean turned back. “I got nothing to offer her, Ryan.”
There. Now it was out. Sean didn’t know what was up with Mel lately, but something was off and he felt like they were drifting in separate directions. Yet he couldn’t begin to sort things out and fight for her without having his own life together. Every time he tried to bring up the possibility of a future together, she turned it around and made it about something physical. She clearly wanted a physical relationship, and so did he, but he wanted more than that. Sean wasn’t made for casual. He was done with unsatisfying, going-nowhere relationships.
Ryan looked stunned. “Nothing to offer? There’s your share of the ranch. We’re turning things around. You’ve got your horse rehab business. You earn a decent income. You’ll be able to take care of a family.”
“And we can share my bedroom here, all cozy with everyone in the main house.” Sean blew out a frustrated breath and kicked at the dirt. “It’s already crowded with you and Sandy, Dad, Ricky, and now your baby on the way.”
“That can change, Sean.” Irritation had crept into Ryan’s voice. “You don’t have to live in the main house to keep working the ranch. Heck, live in town at her place. Just get engaged, let her know you want to be with her. The two of you can work out the details later. And for the love of mercy, when she asks you up to her place again . . . go.”
Sean shook his head. “Can’t.”
“Because Mel’s worth more than a few vague promises and getting hot between the sheets. I thought you would get that.” Sean turned on his heel and stomped onto the porch and through the front door, leaving Ryan behind.