Sunteți pe pagina 1din 231

When Im broken and nothing in the world seems to make any sense, I go back to the ranch, to my beautiful Jessie.

Jess fixes me, makes me whole again. Those were the words written in Adam's journal just before he died. Feeling broken himself, Adam's twin brother, Mitch, makes the journey to Jessie's ranch to see if she is everything his brother said she was. Knowing she'll be devastated, he decides Jessie deserves one last time, one last memory with Adam to help her through the grieving process after she learns about his death. Posing as Adam, he gives her the love his brother was incapable of and quickly realizes he's made the biggest mistake of his life. Because now Mitch is in love with Jessie and must spend the rest of his life pretending to be Adam, or tell the truth and risk losing her forever.

Chapter One
When Im broken and nothing in the world seems to make any sense, I go back to the ranch, to my beautiful Jessie. Jess fixes me, makes me whole again.

Mitch stared at the words his brother had written in his journal, words hed heard countless of times over the past three years. Hed never met Jessie Buchanan, but he thought she must be some kind of woman to be able to glue his brother back together time after time. Especially after some of the atrocities theyd witnessed during their Special Ops missions. As for himself, Mitch usually found solace in the first quiet little town he came to and the first pretty female that happened to catch his eye. Hed never found any of them special enough to return to though, but his brother apparently had. And now it was up to Mitch to tell Miss Buchanan that Adam was gone, that hed never again return to her waiting arms expecting to be put back together by whatever mystical healing powers she possessed. Tossing the journal on the seat beside him, Mitch fired up the trucks engine and pulled out of the diner parking lot. With any luck, hed be at Jessies ranch before nightfall and set up camp in the surrounding woods Adam had told him so much about. He wasnt ready to face her yet. Hell, if he hadnt even come to terms with Adams death himself, what comfort would he be able to offer this woman? He supposed he could have gone to one of his condos or even waited it out in a hotel, but something deep inside compelled him towards the ranch and hed learned a long time ago to trust his instincts. A cynical smile touched his lips. Who knows, maybe this Jessie Buchanan could patch him back together as shed always managed to do for Adam. Adam. His brother,

his friend, his comrade. He rubbed at his chest, the pain still so raw he could barely breathe. Damn it Adam, you should have stayed put like I told you to! But of course, he hadnt. As soon as he saw Mitch was in trouble, hed come charging to the rescue. Encumbered by an hysterical female and certain her captors werent more than a few hundred yards behind them, Mitch wasnt at all confident theyd reach the relative safety of the tree line before the men got close enough to fire on them. Thats when it all fell apart.

Theyd made it into the compound with minimal trouble, had even managed to locate the two kidnap victims within minutes without being detected. All he and Adam had to do was get the woman and her husband outside and into the woods where their team was waiting to take out anyone who tried to pursue them. Hed watched Adam disappear into the trees with the man and had every intention of following him, but the terrified woman didnt seem to understand Mitch was rescuing her and fought him every step of the way. Mitchs fingers tightened around the steering wheel. He had to stop thinking about it. If he kept reliving those last few moments of Adams life hed drive himself crazy. The grief was overwhelming as it was, and the vision of his brother drawing in his last breath wasnt the one Mitch wanted to carry around with him. He wanted to remember Adam as he was the night before, when his face was lit up with the exhilaration he always felt going into a mission. His brother had been an addict to the thrill of a rescue, thriving under the pressure and the danger and never once questioning what drove him to do it.

Mitch, on the other hand, did nothing but worry about what could go wrong and whether theyd make it back alive or not. Hed never been excited about either the planning or the execution of a mission and had certainly never relished the idea of risking his own hide, or Adams for that matter. But hed done it, not for the glory or the money or even for the sake of the poor victims. Hed done it because it was the life his twin brother had chosen for himself and in doing so, had also chosen for Mitch. Theyd always been there for one another, always had each others backs, and it would have been unthinkable for him to let Adam go out on a dangerous mission without being there right alongside him. Mitch drew in a shaky breath and willed himself to focus on something else. Jessie Buchanan came to mind. Hed heard some pretty incredible stories about the woman over the years and wondered how much of it was true and how much of it Adam made up just so he could make the other men jealous. A small grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. Real or imaginary, Adams extremely detailed accounts of his time with her had left them all pea green with envy and wishing they could find a woman like his Jessie. When Im broken, Adam told them with something just short of reverence, Jessie puts me back together.

***

Jessie sat on the porch swing as the late afternoon sun waned, slowly inching its way towards the horizon. It was a nightly ritual, scanning the long stretch of dirt road leading to the

ranch house, praying shed see the tell-tale dust that indicated an approaching vehicle. Namely, Adams black pickup. Hed been gone a long time, longer than usual, and she couldnt rid herself of the gnawing fear that something bad had happened to him. When the sun finally gave up its fight and folded to the darkness of night, Jessie rose wearily to her feet with a heavy sigh. There would have been word, a deep voice sounded from the shadows. Jessie leaned over the rail. What are you doing skulking around my porch, Del? Del Townsend, her ranch foreman, stepped from around the corner of the house where she could see him. I wasnt skulking. I came to see if you needed anything before the boys and I head into town. Im fine, but I appreciate you checking on me. Her brows furrowed. What did you mean, there would have been word? If something had happened to Kincaid, he would have gotten word to you somehow. Her eyes misted with tears. I know. Its just I cant help worrying. Its been almost four months now, its just not like Adam to stay gone that long. Del took the few steps up to the porch and joined her. Why do you do it, Jess? Why do you put yourself through this? You know why. Adam needs me. But he doesnt love you. You deserve better He does love me, she said fiercely. Dels eyes flashed with anger. If he loved you, he wouldnt leave you alone for months on end! Does he even have a clue what it does to you, Jessie? Does he know you cry your heart out for days after he leaves or that you sit out here night after night waiting for him to return only to be disappointed when he doesnt? He reached out and gripped her shoulders. You need a

man who wants to be with you, a man wholl be there for you every day to show you just how much you mean to him. Jessie glared up at him. What I need is none of your business, Del. What Adam does is important and when hes not out saving lives, hes with me, and you can believe he makes every minute of it count. Meaning you have a few weeks of good sex before he takes off again, he said derisively. She jerked her arms out of his grasp. This discussion is over, Im going inside. Jessie headed for the door but Del stepped in front of her, blocking her way. Im sorry, Jess, what I said was out of line. I just hate to see you hurting like this. He put his hands on her shoulders, but his time his grasp was as gentle as his voice. I could make you forget him if youd only give me the chance. And Id be there for you, Jessie, every dayevery night. She gave him a sad smile. Weve been through this before, Del, please dont make it worse by saying things you shouldnt. Why shouldnt I say them? You know Id never hurt you the way Kincaid does. Just give me a chance, thats all Im asking. You need a man, Jess. A woman like you was made for loving. Del, please A chance, he growled, just a chance. Jessie gasped in surprise when Del pulled her hard up against his chest, crushing her lips with a brutal kiss. She struggled to push him away, but was simply no match for his strength. Shock turned into fear, followed quickly by anger. She tore her mouth away from him, eyes

blazing. Take your hands off of me, she gritted. Del dropped his arms and took a step back. God, Jess, Im sorry. I dont know what came over me. Forgive me, I never meant to Jessie shoved past him, but her anger was spent. Go on, Del, the boys will be waiting for you. She opened the screen door and without turning around she said, Just so we understand each other, if you ever touch me again, Adam will hear about it. She didnt have to see his face to know the kind of reaction her words elicited.

***

Mitch watched her disappear into the house before moving his eyes back to the man who was now high tailing it off the porch. Judging by his hasty retreat, whatever shed told him had quite an impact. Mitch had a sneaking suspicion shed threatened to tell Adam. After spending the better part of an hour observing the desolate expression on Jessies face as she sat on the porch swing and coming to the conclusion it was a result of his brothers absence, hed been disturbed to see the man step out of the shadows and join her. Hed known the man was there, of course. Mitch had spotted him as soon as hed left the bunkhouse and made for the house. The mans behavior was odd to say the least; hovering out of sight and sneaking peeks at Jessie every now and then, and Mitch had just about made up his mind to hike on down there to make sure she wasnt in any trouble when the man came out of hiding. The conversation looked a little heated, but when the man grabbed her up in his arms, Mitch was certain they were having an affair. Rage flared up inside him at the woman then just as quickly dissipated when he realized she was trying to free herself. If she hadnt gotten control

of the situation so quickly, Mitch would have been down there in a matter of minutes handling it for her. But she was safe now; the man had taken off with some of his buddies. He adjusted the night vision goggles, altering the lens for a sharper image, then panned all the windows until he located her bedroom on the second floor. Mitch hesitated for a moment before deciding to move in a little closer. Sticking to the shadows, he made his way towards the house and ducked behind a tree not a hundred yards away. Hed been camped in the woods overlooking the ranch for several days now, observing Jessie for the most part but also keeping an eye on the ranch hands. This was the first time hed been able to get close to the house. He had to admit she ran a tight operation and didnt seem mind getting her own hands dirty. The light in her bedroom always flicked on well before dawn and she worked like a powerhouse until after she made sure the ranch hands had been fed dinner. Once the dishes were washed and put away, Jessica would come outside to sit on the porch swing until the sun went down. It bothered him that she worked so hard, and it bothered him even more that she sat there night after night waiting for a man who would never show up. He wished there was something he could do to ease her sorrow, but what he had to tell her would only make it worse and he wasnt quite ready to do that yet. Mitch leaned against the tree trunk, casting his glance upwards just as Jessie opened the French doors and stepped out onto the balcony. Air hissed from his lungs at the sight of her standing there in a sleeveless, floor length nightgown. He was certain the gown wasnt sheer, but with the light shinning from behind her, Jessies lithe form was clearly visible beneath the garment; every dangerous curve of her. Hed only seen her with her hair pulled back, but tonight her golden curls cascaded over her shoulders making her look like a story book princess. Adam hadnt exaggerated; one gentle touch from Jessie Buchanan was probably all any man would

need to feel whole again. For a while she just stood there, occasionally lifting her face to the sky as if she was studying the stars. Then her body seemed to tense. He knew she couldnt possibly see him, not with the cover of night and the way hed plastered himself against the tree, but suddenly she turned her head in his direction and seemed to be staring right at him. Mitch froze, not moving, not even daring to breathe as she leaned over the rail, her eyes searching the darkness. His heart reached out to her when she straightened back up and covered her face with her hands. He waited until shed gone back inside, the gut-wrenching sound of her sobs following him long after he was out of earshot. Surely Adam couldnt possibly have known the anguish Jessie suffered during his long absences. True, his brother was sometimes a little incognizant of other peoples feelings, but it was never intentional. No doubt Adam never even considered that shed feel anything but what he did; regret at having to separate and anticipation for the next brief visit. Still, Mitch couldnt help feel a little animosity towards Adam for being so blind to the emotional turmoil Jessie went through, especially since he knew how much his brother had cared for her. Back at his camp, Mitch considered his options. He could hide up here like a coward and let Jessie continue to have her hopes shattered every night when Adam didnt show, or he could go tell her the truth and allow her to begin the healing process. He didnt want to tell her, didnt want to be the one to break her heart, but what choice did he have? Mitch rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Maybe there was another option; one that would help them both put some closure on Adams death. He knew how he would have felt if he hadnt been with his brother right before he died. It would have been infinitely harder to deal with if he hadnt been able to talk to him, to tell how

much he loved him and how much better his own life had been because of all the adventures theyd shared. Jessie had been robbed of that. Shed never have those last few precious minutes with him, never hear the words Adam should have said to her when he had the chance. Mitch could give those to her. Adam had told Jessie he had a brother, but hed never divulged that he and Mitch were twins. Someday well give her the shock of her life and show up at the same time, hed laughed. Mitch mulled over the idea of going down to the ranch pretending to be Adam so Jessie could have one last time with him. He could give her the memories she deserved to have, give her a part of his brother Mitch knew had been held back. He doubted Adam had ever told her he loved her, though he knew it was true. And in the process, maybe Jessie could ease some of the ache in his own heart. He could stay for a few weeks, give her a lifetime of memories, then slip out of her life forever. Later, he could send one of his men to break the news to her that Adam was dead. She would grieve, but at least shed have those last days with him to comfort her. He wandered to the edge of the tree line, staring down at the ranch and the light that was still burning bright in Jessies bedroom window. She was all alone, and she was hurting. He could pull it off, he was sure of it. Hell, half the time the men in his outfit hadnt been able to tell him and Adam apart. Jessie would believe he was Adam because shed have no reason not to. He tried to convince himself it was a selfless act, that hed be doing it only because she needed him, but it wasnt entirely true. Mitch needed her too. What do you think, Adam? Do you want to kick my ass for even considering sleeping with your woman? He imagined Adams response and chuckled. Of course you do. If she was mine, Id want to rip your damn head off.

He thought of Jessie as shed looked standing out on the balcony, and the absolute grace with which she rode a horse. Over the past several days hed watched with pure admiration as she struggled with bales of hay that outweighed her by a good ten pounds, watched her repair fences and herd cattle with a fierce determination that somehow made him feel proud. Shes everything you said she was, Adam, so I know youll understand why I have to go to her. I just hope you can forgive me. He strode back to the camp and started packing his things, confident he was doing the right thing for all of them. In spite of the momentary twinge of guilt he felt when he fired up the truck, Mitch maneuvered around the trees and headed down the hill towards the ranch.

***

Jessie lay on her bed, staring up at the ceiling. What had gotten into her? Shed been worried sick for several weeks now, fearing the worst had happened to Adam. Then inexplicably, shed gotten this crazy idea in her head that he was here. Shed even gone so far as to convince herself he was down by trees watching her, waiting for her, and shed almost raced downstairs to go to him. When she realized how absurd she was being and that Adam certainly wouldnt be hiding behind trees when he could be inside with her, shed burst into tears. It wasnt like her to lose control of her emotions that way, but then her encounter with Del had thrown her off balance a little so maybe that was it. She supposed shed have to deal with her foreman and his inappropriate behavior sooner or later because he was getting increasingly persistent about the notion she needed a man. Jessie scowled. Need a man! Shed practically run the ranch on her own the last few years before her father died and now she had full rein. She was doing just fine, and even if she did decide shed waited long enough for Adam,

she certainly had no romantic ideas about Del. Not that there was anything wrong with him. He was hard-working and would make a good husband for someone else, just not her. And Del wasnt the only one questioning her reasons for remaining faithful to Adam. She was close with all of her ranch hands, and one by one theyd all eventually asked her why she didnt find someone who would stick around for more than a few weeks at a time. It was none of their business, and shed had no problem telling them so even though she knew they only asked because they cared for her. But Del was a different story altogether because hed made it quite plain he was more than willing to fill the role. As for why she allowed Adam to float in and out of her life, the answer was simple. It was the only way she could have him. Hed never lied to her; right from the very beginning he told her he worked in Special Ops and that if she wanted any kind of relationship with him she had to accept that he would be gone more than he was there. Jessie had jumped on it because she knew in her heart it was the best he could offer, just as she knew that was about as close to an admission of love as Adam Kincaid was ever going to get. Hed made no promises beyond the one to be with her when he could and to remain faithful as long as they were together. He hadnt offered more and shed made no demands. Yes, she missed him terribly when he was gone, but Adam did more than make up for it when he returned. Jessie closed her eyes, letting the images of the passion theyd shared fill her senses. For the first few days after Adam returned, they rarely left the bedroom, but once the initial hunger for each other had been satiated, he worked the ranch right alongside her. With her workload cut in half, she had time to go horseback riding with him and have picnics down by the pond or just take a walk in the woods. Those were the times she cherished most, because thats when he opened up to her.

As much as Adam loved what he did for a living, it came with a lot of baggage. He couldnt give her specific details about the missions, of course, but that wasnt what wormed its way into mind and heart anyway. It was the deaths that lay so heavily on his shoulders and preyed on him; those hed tried to save but couldnt and the comrades whod lost their lives attempting the rescue. And he worried incessantly about his brother and often had nightmares that Mitch got injured or killed. Yet he was driven to go back, to keep trying to make a difference. It wasnt that Jessie liked hearing the horrible stories he told her, but it made her feel special knowing she was the only one Adam confided in about it. For whatever reason he trusted her, and in telling her what happened, he was able to release the demons that haunted him. Until the next time, she thought ruefully. She hated how badly those missions tore him up inside but she cared for Adam a great deal and as long as he needed her, shed be there for him. Jessie sighed and sat up, resigning herself to another sleepless night. The idea that she should have gone into town with the boys had just flitted through her head when she heard the distinct sound of a truck engine. She glanced at the clock. It was way too early for them to be returning. Most of the time they drank so much they just spent Saturday nights in town and didnt return until early afternoon on Sunday, so it didnt bode well that theyd come home so soon after leaving. It usually meant one of them had gotten a little too rowdy and ended up with a split lip or some other minor wound shed be expected to stitch or patch up. Jessie crept down stairs to sneak a peek out the front window. She wasnt in the mood to play doctor and with any luck, the damage wouldnt be so severe theyd want to wake her and risk having to endure the lecture that inevitably accompanied the bandaging. She swore under her breath when the pickup continued on up to the house instead of veering off towards the

bunkhouse, and was just about to run upstairs for her robe when something made her stop and take another look out the window. He was nothing more than a shadow when he stepped out of the truck, but Jessie had spent enough time pressed up against that rock hard body to know who it belonged to. With a squeal of happiness, she sprinted for the door and was racing down the stone pathway in a matter of seconds. Lord, have mercy, Mitch muttered when Jessie came flying out of the house in her nightgown. He had just time enough to brace himself for impact before she threw herself in his arms and claimed his mouth with a searing kiss. His heart thumped wildly in his chest as she pressed herself into him and every ounce of blood he had in his body made a mad dash south and pooled in his loins. A low groan of pure agony rumbled deep in his throat when her tongue found his and for all his doubts on the ride to the ranch, Mitch could think of nothing else at that moment but burying himself inside her soft body. God, Ive missed you, she said breathlessly before reclaiming his mouth. Never in his life had Mitch been greeted like this by a woman and he had to question his brothers sanity at ever being able to leave her. His entire body was on fire from the feel of her satiny skin and the soft, feminine scent of her, and when she rolled her hips invitingly against him, Mitch wasnt altogether sure hed survive an entire night with Jessie Buchanan. Thinking he could regain his self control by putting a little distance between them, he drew his head back. It was a monumental mistake. It was bad enough that she was so damn beautiful his insides shook just to look at her, but her parted lips were an open invitation no red blooded man could even hope to resist.

He crushed her to his chest, whispering her name just before his mouth claimed hers. Jessie let out a helpless whimper and melted into him, instantly sending his senses into overload, and Mitch sent up the fervent prayer that he was strong enough to at least make it inside the house before he took her.

Chapter 2
Jessie smiled up at him dreamily. Did I mention how much Ive missed you? You may have, but its hard to hear anything with the sound of my heart thundering in my ears like a herd of horses. She laughed softly. Youre in a lot of trouble if just a few little kisses have you this hot and bothered. She pressed her hips into him, widening her eyes in mock surprise. Oh my, Mr. Kincaid, you really did miss me too! If you follow me inside, Ill see what I can do to take care of that for you. Enticing as she was, the knowledge that Jessie thought he was his brother made Mitch falter. II thought we could talk for a little while first. Jessie laughed as she extracted herself from his arms. Thats very funny, Kincaid. She grabbed his hand and tugged him towards the house. What about my bags? They can wait. She glanced back him with a sexy smile. You wont need any clothes for quite some time anyway. And if youre hungry, that will have to wait too because I intend to keep you occupied for at least the next two or three hours. He wasnt hungry, he thought, his eyes feasting on Jessies perfectly shaped bottom as she led him up the stairs to her bedroom, but he most certainly had an appetite. A ferocious appetite that would very shortly be fed. It felt like a dream, being invited into her bedroom, watching the sultry look in her eyes as she reached for his belt buckle. But reality hit him with a jolt when she finished undressing him then stepped back and let her robe and gown fall to the floor.

Jessie blushed beneath his heated gaze. Well?

My God, he said in a hoarse whisper.

His body trembling with desire, Mitchs eyes followed Jessie as she stretched out on the bed, her glorious mane of hair spilling across the pillow. His gaze raked over the fullness of her perfect breasts, her flat belly, and finally to golden triangle of hair nestled in the vee of her thighs. A scorching heat worked its way from his loins outward when Jessie held out her arms. Mitch went to her, a low groan of pure pleasure issuing from his lips when he lowered himself over her. He had every intention of taking it slow, of savoring her kisses and heightening the sexual tension between them with soft caresses to her delicate skin, but the moment bare flesh met bare flesh he knew that wasnt going to happen. Hed barely begun the foreplay, scarcely touched the swell of her breasts with his lips when she pulled his mouth back to hers and wrapped those long, sexy legs around him. Now, Jessie breathed, I want you now. She gasped, then moaned when he thrust heavily into her. You feel so good, she purred as he pulled back then filled her again. Mitch gritted his teeth against the unbearable tightness of her. Her muscles clasped around him as he sank deeper and deeper into her inner heat, the pleasure so intense he began to climax almost immediately. Hed never been anything but gentle with a woman, never taken his own pleasure before seeing to hers, but there was no holding back with Jessie, no possible way he could have stopped now that he was so close to the peak. He drove himself into her, mercilessly impaling her with short, rapid thrusts. A feral cry tore from her lips followed by an explosion of liquid heat, and Jessies climax was so unexpected, so immensely exciting to witness, it triggered his own.

Jessie clung to his broad shoulders, riding out the enormous waves until at last the violent trembling subsided. She kept her legs locked around his thighs as he continued to thrust into her, her abdomen clenching as a second climax rocked her body when Adam found his own release. Lost in a timeless sense of euphoria, her mind barely grasped the idea that his love making had somehow been different before he was kissing her again. When he finally lifted his head, allowing them both to draw in much needed air, he grinned like a drunken sailor just back from a thoroughly satisfying binge. Jessies heart squeezed in her chest. Had he always been this breathtaking after making love? Had it been so long that shed forgotten how magical it felt to have his body joined with hers? Hed never left her anything but completely satiated before, but the feelings he stirred in her now went beyond sexual satisfaction, beyond anything that was within her realm of comprehension. Jessie combed her fingers through his hair, a soft smile curving her lips. That was incredible. So incredible in fact that I might be tempted to fix you something to eat if youre hungry. Mitch braced himself on his elbows, studying her face for a moment. Eyes the color of a clear summer sky held the dazed look of a woman whod been loved and loved well. Her face was flushed, her lips swollen from his ardent kisses. Her smile tugged at his heart, made him wish they could stay this way forever; their bodies locked together with the heat of passion still hovering just beneath the surface. He lowered his head and planted a soft kiss to her lips. You are by far the most beautiful woman Ive ever laid eyes on.

She laced her arms around his neck. Does this mean theres going to be a second act before intermission? Sweetheart, the way you look tonight, there may not be an intermission. Jessie drew in a sharp breath when she felt him growing hard again. Oh my, she rasped then closed her eyes. It was going to be a very, very long night for both of them.

***

Jessie yawned and stretched, a feline grin tipping the corners of her mouth when she opened her eyes to find herself curled against the warmth of Adams body. Hed been insatiable, reaching for her time and time again during the night, and it had been nearly dawn before theyd both fallen into an exhausted sleep. Jessies heart melted at the sight of him. Only in sleep did the hard lines of his face relax making him look almost vulnerable. Her eyes moved over every handsome feature; the dark hair and high cheekbones, the square jaw and full lips, the nose that had a slight crook from where it had been broken during one of his excursions.

Jessie frowned when she spotted a new scar; a long, thin line that ran from his ear and curved down under his jaw. How many fresh battle wounds had he acquired this time? She hated knowing there would always be new ones to discover. Adam, however, found a great deal of pleasure in letting her search for them. Her smile found its way back to her lips. Shed find them and kiss them just as shed done in the past, and Adam would shiver with each feathery touch as he always did. Until he couldnt take it any longer. Hed let out that husky groan, the one that told her shed driven him half crazy with desire, and then hed make wild, passionate love to her.

With heartfelt regret, Jessie pushed the images aside and slipped out of bed. Adam needed his rest and she didnt think her sore muscles could handle another round just yet. She grabbed his shirt from the floor where it had been tossed the night before and pulled it over her head. For now shed have to be content with keeping the scent of him close to her as she padded downstairs to make breakfast. Hed be ravenous after the night theyd shared and since shed been the one to drain all his energy, it was only right that she replenish it.

She bustled around the kitchen, frying up bacon, flipping pancakes, and scrambling eggs just the way Adam liked them. When they were done, she set them in the oven so they wouldnt get cold and started a pot of coffee. Jessie was just finishing her first cup when a sleepy-eyed Adam wandered into the kitchen. Shirtless and wearing just his jeans, which hed managed to zip only half-way, he looked so incredibly sexy she could almost hear her hormones crying out for him.

Morning, beautiful, he said, gathering her in his arms for a long, lingering kiss.

Keep that up and Ill haul you back to bed without breakfast, Jessie warned.

If I had an ounce of energy left in me, I might be tempted.

She smiled up at him. Its all part of my evil plot to keep you docile as a kitten.

Mitch laughed. Keep me zapped of strength so Im not a bear to live with?

Something like that. Now sit so I can get breakfast on the table.

He drew her closer, dipping his head so that his lips lightly brushed hers. In a minute, I havent gotten my fill of you yet.

Jessie parted her lips, her body already tingling with anticipation. The kiss lasted all of three seconds before they were interrupted by the thump of heavy footsteps making their way toward the kitchen. Adam dropped his hold her and she had only a moment to wonder at the guilty look on his face before Del rounded the corner and came to an abrupt halt.

Del, what a surprise. I thought you and the boys spent the night in town. Im afraid I didnt make enough breakfast for everyone, but Id be glad to

Thanks Jess, but Ive already had lunch.

Lunch? Is it really that late?

Del nodded absently, his less than friendly gaze focused on the half dressed man beside her. A quick glance at Adams guarded expression told her he wasnt exactly thrilled with Dels presence either. It was obvious this was some sort of standoff and neither of the men was about to make any gesture that could be construed as friendly. But knowing how Del felt for her, Jessie felt compassion for him since it was quite evident Adam had spent the night in her bed. On the other hand, it was the prime opportunity to insure Del knew the only man in her life was Adam. Slipping her hand into Adams, she asked why hed come up to the house.

What Id like to know, Mitch interceded before Del could respond, is what makes you think you have the right to come tromping in without knocking?

Jessie glanced up at him sharply. Adam!

Del visibly bristled. I didnt recognize the truck and wanted to make sure Jessie was okay.

Its mine, obviously. And as you can see, Jessie is fine. We were just about to sit down to breakfast, so if theres nothing else Mitch left the sentence hanging there, a less than subtle request that Del dismiss himself.

Jessies eyes moved from one to the other in disbelief, the open hostility between the men growing by the minute. What in the world has gotten into you two?

Mitch dropped her hand and wrapped his arm around Jessies waist possessively, an unreasonable jealously rising inside of him as he glared openly at Del. What gave this man the right to place himself in the role of Jessies protector? And just who the hell did he think he was to enter the house without knocking? For all Del knew, Jessie could have been walking around in that silky nightgown shed had on the night before. Or maybe that was why he hadnt bothered to knock.

Mitch kept his voice low and even, but he doubted even this big oaf could mistake the dangerous undertone. I dont like the idea of you just waltzing into the house anytime you want to.

Turnabout is fair play, Del said between clenched teeth, because I dont much care for the idea that you just waltz in here anytime you want to either.

Jessie couldnt believe this was happening. Way too much testosterone was in play here and somehow she had to diffuse the situation before they started taking swings at each other. There had always been a little male bristling between the two so Adam apparently felt Del

was a threat, but hed never been so aggressive about it before. For obvious reasons, Del didnt like Adam, but this was the first time hed dared to voice his opinions about it to Adams face.

Jessie wrapped both her arms around Adams waist and smiled up at him. I think you need to eat something. The bear in you is coming out. She turned her gaze to Del. I appreciate your concern, but maybe next time you could knock?

It never bothered you before, Del replied in a manner that suggested it happened much more frequently that it really did.

Well it bothers her now, Mitch growled.

Jessie moved out of Adams arms, her eyes flashing. Okay, thats it! She pointed towards the table. Adam, sit. And Del, please go, Ill talk to you later.

She smiled smugly when they both did as she asked, each of them scowling but apparently realizing she was not in the mood to have her patience tested any further. After Del had gone, she poured a cup of coffee and set it down in front of Adam then pulled the food from the oven and dished it up. She waited until hed eaten a good portion of his meal and his temper had cooled before attempting to speak with him.

Would you like to explain what that was all about?

I dont like him, Mitch said, shoveling a bite of eggs in his mouth.

You never have, but youve never been rude to him before. Hes my foreman, Adam, and he does a good job. Id hate to lose him just because youve decided hes some sort of threat.

He sat back in his chair, his eyes sweeping over her. He didnt seem at all surprised or embarrassed to find you in nothing but a shirt.

Jessie laughed. Thats it? Thats what got your dander up?

I dont like it, Jess, he frowned. It made me wonder how many times hes walked in to find you dressed like that.

She shook her head, laughing even harder. Oh, Kincaid, you are definitely fishing in the wrong pond. First of all, he rarely comes in without knocking, and if he does its because hes with the rest of the boys whove come for a meal. Secondly, he was too busy glaring at you to even notice what I was or wasnt wearing. And no, I dont usually go around dressed like this but Id just had a glorious night of fantastic sex and wanted to wear my lovers shirt.

Mitchs dour expression slipped into a grin. Fantastic sex, huh?

Jessie rose from the chair and went to him, settling herself on his lap. It was mind melting, heart stopping, out of this world sex. Theres no one but you, Adam. Youre the one that I want, the only man Ive ever given myself to, you know that.

Mitch hugged her to him, but his good mood was nothing more than a faade to keep her happy. The mention of Adams name was a harsh reminder that Jessies heart belonged to his brother, not him, and Adam himself had confessed hed taken her virginity. How would she feel

if she discovered shed been deceived into sleeping with a man she didnt even know, that shed unwittingly been unfaithful to Adam? And here she was doing her damnedest to convince him he had no reason to be jealous of Del when the truth was had no right to feel that way. It was disheartening to say the least. Guilt and remorse also made their appearance and for a moment he considered telling Jessie the truth. Then she whispered in his ear that she wanted him again, followed by a slow, extremely in depth kiss, and suddenly honesty didnt seem quite as important as taking her back to bed.

***

Lying in a tangle of sheets with Jessie curled up in is arms, the rest of the world seemed a million miles away. It was easy to see why Adam kept coming back to her. There were no rescue plans swirling around in his mind, no dark nightmares about the death and violence that went along with those plans. Even the stabbing pain of Adams death had dulled a little and he could only attribute that to the beautiful woman in his arms. When Jessie flashed one of her radiant smiles on him, it was easy to forget that pain and sorrow existed. His thoughts were consumed with her and had been since the moment hed laid eyes on her.

After spending less than a week with her, Mitch felt like a new man. She replenished his soul, filled his heart in a way no other woman ever had, and for the first time in his life, he found himself thinking of marriage and children and white picket fences. He was falling fast and hard for Jessie and it hurt like hell knowing any feelings she had for him werent his to claim. If she reached for him in the night, it was really Adam she wanted. When she turned to him with that adoring look in her eyes, it was Adam she was seeing. It was Adam she kissed, Adam she made

love to, and God forgive him, but Mitch was starting to feel resentful towards his brother for coming between them.

Do you want to talk about it? Jessie said softly

Talk about what?

Whatevers bothering you. Youve been mumbling under your breath for the last hour.

Mitch pressed a kiss to her forehead. Im sorry, honey, I didnt mean to wake you.

Silence followed and Jessie knew from past experience he wasnt ready to open up to her yet. She sensed this last mission had been much worse than any of the others, leaving emotional scars that would take more time than usual to heal. But she was patient. Selfishly, she hoped he wouldnt start talking about it too soon because it would hasten his departure. It had always been like that; Adam arriving on her doorstep looking as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders, and Jessie giving him all the love and kindness she could until he was ready to bear his soul. Then, once it was all out and he felt he was ready to face the world again, hed be off on another other dangerous mission.

Del thought Adam was just using her, and in some ways he was probably right. She was the salve that Adam applied to his wounds, at least thats how she saw it. He needed her to help put the pieces back together, needed her gentle touch, her light hearted outlook on life, the physical passion they shared. She liked how being needed made her feel and found a great deal of happiness in knowing she was able to help him when no one else could. Maybe Adam wasnt the most giving man, but she knew in her heart that hed given more of himself to her than any

other woman hed ever been with. No, it wasnt the forever after kind of love, but for now it was enough.

Jessie rose up on one elbow. Its almost dawn, did you get any sleep at all?

Actually, I slept better last night than I have for ages. I only woke up about an hour ago but couldnt seem to get back to sleep.

I need to get up and start breakfast for the boys soon, would you like to join us?

Mitch grimaced. He knew Jessie wanted him to call a truce with Del but he couldnt help the animosity he felt for the man. The other problem was that Adam had known all of the ranch hands and though hed described the men and some of their peculiar habits, Mitch didnt think he could recognize more than one or two of them based on the stories hed heard. What if one of them asked questions he couldnt answer? What if they referred to one of Adams previous visits and Mitch was unable to bluff his way through the conversation? No, it was better not to tempt fate. He didnt want to raise any suspicions that he wasnt Adam and thats exactly what would happen if he put himself in a room full of men hed supposedly known for three years.

He looked at Jessies hopeful face, knowing hed upset her but really had no choice. Im not really up to it today, sweetheart.

I understand, she said, not quite able to squelch her disappointment. Look, Adam, I know youre not thrilled with the idea of dining at the same table as Del, but Hank and Kenny and some of the other boys have been asking about you. Theyre beginning to wonder why you seem to be going out of your way to avoid them.

Im not avoiding them, Jess, Im just not ready for anyones company but yours.

Jessie didnt bother trying to persuade him any further but she found it disturbing that he didnt at least have breakfast with everyone. Hed always refrained from joining them for meals during the first couple of days so she hadnt given it much thought. But when he continued to decline her pleas to come downstairs and at least say hello to everyone, she began to worry that maybe this time she wouldnt be able to help him bounce back. Hed always enjoyed the camaraderie at mealtimes in the past, but now he didnt seem to want anything to do with them. She had to figure out some way to keep Adam from secluding himself inside the house with only her for company. Shed have to put some serious thought into it, but it would have to wait. Right now she had work to do.

With a sigh of resignation, Jessie threw the covers back and climbed out of bed. Ill bring your plate up after Ive taken care of the boys, she told him as she pulled on a pair of jeans and a light cotton shirt.

Youre upset with me, Mitch said despondently.

She crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed next to him. Im not upset, but I am worried. Its not like you to keep everything bottled up for so long or to avoid the boys company. She leaned over and gave him a swift kiss then stood up, coming to a decision. If Adam wouldnt leave the house on his own, shed just have to force his hand. I have some work to do on the ranch so Ill be gone most of the day.

Mitch eyed her for a moment, certain this was some sort of punishment for not coming down to breakfast. Let me know when youre leaving, Ill go with you.

No, you stay here and rest. Im just riding fence today and can take one of the boys with me.

Which one?

Jessie shrugged and turned towards the door so he wouldnt catch the sly smile. I dont know. Hank maybe, or Del.

Mitch was off the bed in a heartbeat. He gripped her arm and whirled her around, his eyes blazing. Like hell! You think Im going to let you go off alone all day with that man? Youre mine, Jessie, mine, and Im going to make damn sure he knows it. He followed up his claim to her with a long, hard kiss that left them both panting and a little weak in the knees.

Jessie tipped her head back, a triumphant smile on her lips. So youll be joining us for breakfast this morning?

A slow dawning of understanding wafted its way through his head. Why the little minx had deliberately bated him! He shook his head, chuckling. Youre something else, Jessie Buchanan, you know that?

Yes, I know, and youd do well to remember that. She extracted herself from his arms. Now get dressed, Ill expect you downstairs in twenty minutes. With that, she turned and left the room.

Mitch stood there for a moment staring at the door. What had he done? If he didnt join them for breakfast, hed worry her even more. He couldnt bear the thought of causing Jessie even a moments distress, but if he did go down and face all those men there was a very good chance hed botch something up and arouse suspicion. Thinking fast, Mitch dashed to the closet and pulled out his duffle bag. Most of his things had been unpacked but the one item that could help him get through unscathed was carefully tucked beneath the plastic lining.

He dug out Adams journal and thumbed through it, scanning the pages for any mention of the ranch hands and let out a sigh of relief when he finally found what he was looking for. Hank is a crotchety old coot, he read out loud, but for some reason he and I bonded right away. Hes a sharp old bird and I respect him a great deal, though youd never guess it by the way we toss insults back and forth. Kenny, his sidekick

Chapter 3
Its about time you showed your ugly mug, Hank barked when Mitch walked into the dining room.

Its good to see you too, old man. He nodded to the red-haired man next to Hank. You still torturing Kenny with tall tales about your days as a Texas Ranger?

Hank snorted. Tall tales, my ass! I was the best damn Ranger they ever had.

Mitch laughed with the others, grateful for the brief distraction so he could study the other four men sitting around the table and figure out who was who. Thank God Adam had a penchant for describing people and places in great detail otherwise Mitch didnt think he would have had a chance of pulling this off. Even more gratifying was the radiant smile Jessie graced him with when she brought him a cup of coffee.

Del was sitting at the far end of the table doing his damnedest to avoid making eye contact but the other men greeted him like an old friend. He was still making small talk when Jessie ordered him to sit and it was with a sense of childish glee that Mitch noted shed saved the seat at the head of the table for him. After serving his breakfast she settled into the seat next to him, flashing another heart stopping smile his way.

It wasnt difficult to figure out why Adam had taken to Hank. He was obnoxiously loud, his comments often bordering on crude, and most endearing of all, the old man picked at Del mercilessly. To his credit, Del took it with a grain of salt and didnt seem to harbor any hard feelings towards him for doing it. And it was through Hanks badgering of Del and the other men

that Mitch was able to distinguish one from the other, though hed half guessed anyway based on the descriptions in Adams journal. By the time breakfast was done, hed lost most of his trepidation and was feeling much more confident about being able to pull this whole thing off without a hitch.

Now that wasnt so painful, was it? Jessie asked after the men had gone.

Mitch picked up a couple of plates from the table and brought them to the sink. No, it wasnt. He pulled her into his arms. But Id much rather have you all to myself.

Jessies heart fluttered when he lowered his head, teasing her with light, feathery kisses. He toyed with her for awhile, pulling back any time her lips pressed a little too close and she found it both frustrating and exciting at the same time. Adam had never been playful like this before but she liked it. She liked it a lot.

So you want to play keep away, huh? Jessie laughed as she twisted out of his grasp, scampering around the table just as he made a lunge for her.

Mitch grinned, slowly circling the table. You think youre fast enough to get away from me?

Have you forgotten I still hold the track record at my old high school for the hundred yard dash?

He hadnt known that, but it didnt make any difference, not when he was so determined to get her back in his arms so he could cart her back upstairs to bed. Just looking at her made his blood boil and the way she was shifting her weight from side to side only drew his attention to

her slender hips and the blissful pleasure that awaited him between those silky thighs. Which is exactly what Jessie must have been counting on because she chose that precise moment to make a run for it. She was fast, he had to give her that, but longer legs and years as a Special Ops agent provided him just enough of an advantage to overtake her. He caught her around the waist just as she reached the front door and hauled her back towards the stairs.

Wait, Kincaid, she squealed, we have work to do

This wont take long, Mitch promised as he swept her up into his arms.

Blue eyes looked up at him longingly, and desire shot straight through him, giving rise to a hunger stronger than any hed ever known. Adam had been a fool to leave this woman behind while he traipsed off to save the world. And Mitch was an even bigger fool because in the end, when the charade was over, thats exactly what hed be doing too. Except he wouldnt be coming back.

***

Jessie watched him fumble with the cinch as if hed never saddled a horse before. Just what happened on that last mission anyway? What nightmares had such a grip on him that hed forget how to do something so simple, something hed done a million times before? Hed even struggled with the bridle for a few minutes before the horse obligingly opened his mouth and allowed Adam to slip it between his teeth. She patted Serinas neck, crooning to her horse and offering a small lump of sugar before deciding Adam needed her assistance if they planned on leaving any time soon.

Your mind must be a million miles away, she said, squeezing herself between him and his horse.

Mitch smiled apologetically. I guess it is.

Trying not to appear too obvious, he peered over her shoulder, watching carefully so he wouldnt be so inept the next time they went riding. But Jessie didnt seem to mind taking over and it occurred to him that she did it quite often, which was turning out to be his saving grace. Like that morning when hed told her he wished hed thought to bring his cowboy boots. Shed given him a curious look then disappeared for a few minutes, returning with what was obviously Adams old boots. Then when theyd gone to the tack room inside the barn and hed just stood there staring at the small collection of saddles, she had to point out which one was his. No doubt, Jessie thought he was losing his mind, but for now it worked in his favor so he didnt try to convince her otherwise.

There, she turned to him with a warm smile, all saddled up and ready to ride.

It should have made him happy to know she wanted to take care of him, even happier still at how easily she accepted that he needed her to. Instead it tore at his heart because he was beginning to understand how much Adam had leaned on her and just how little his brother had given back in return. Jessie deserved a man who was strong in both body and mind, a man whod do anything for her and want nothing more than to make her life easier. What shed gotten was someone who came to her only when the burden on his heart and soul became too much for him to bear alone.

She must have loved Adam very much to endure the long stretches between visits and the endless lonely nights, yet shed never said the words, at least not to Mitch. Had she spoken them to Adam? He wished to God hed been the one to meet her first. If he had, this life that he was living now would truly be his. Jessie would be his.

Hey, Kincaid, she said softly, itll work out, I promise.

Mitch snapped out of his reverie, and for one panicked moment was afraid she knew what hed been thinking. Jess, I

She wrapped her arms around his waist, hugging him with all her might. Ill fix it, she said fiercely. Ill help you through it just like all the other times, but you have to let it go. Justdont shut me out, Adam. Jessie looked up at him, her heart aching for the maelstrom of emotions she saw churning behind those dark eyes of his. Talk to me. Tell me happened on this mission that made it so much worse than the others.

If only he could. I will, Jess, I swear. I just need a little more time. She turned her head away, but not before hed seen how much hed hurt her. Mitch cupped her chin in his hand and gently forced her to look at him. Youre the best thing thats ever happened to me, sweetheart, and I promise Ill tell you everything soon. But right now, what I need most is just to be with you.

Youre sure?

Im sure, he smiled. Every minute Im with you breathes life back into me.

Confused by an unfamiliar twinge of emotion shed never experienced in the past, Jessie wasnt sure what to make of it. Outwardly, he was still the same Adam shed known for three years, but something inside him had changed. Maybe it was because he was reaching out to her on a more emotional level, verbalizing things that before had only been hinted at through physical contact.

Youve never said those things to me before.

Mitch didnt miss the wariness in her voice or the sad undertone. Im sorry for that, Jess. I realize now there were a lot of things I should have said and done. He drew her closer and pressed a soft kiss to her lips. I should have told you how wonderful I think you are. He kissed her again. I should have said that coming home to you is the one true happiness in my life. He kissed her harder, longer. And I should have let you know that nothing, nothing brings me greater pleasure than when Im holding you in my arms, kissing you, touching you, making love to you. You mean the world to me, Jess.

Tears glistened in her eyes. You really mean that, dont you?

His chest tightened. He did mean it, every word of it. Sweetheart, theres no place Id rather be than right here with you. He hugged her to him. I think we should get on the horses and ride out of here while I still have a little self control left. The way Im feeling right now, I couldnt even guarantee wed make it back to the house.

Jessie didnt doubt he was telling the truth, her own internal heat had spiked considerably the moment shed stepped into his arms. Still, the idea of climbing up into the hayloft and spending the next hour giving into the carnal desires he aroused in her was more than a little

enticing. The sudden appearance of Hank, however, put a huge damper on the moment. Hastily pulling away from Adam, she greeted her favorite ranch hand with an embarrassed smile.

Hank eyed the possessive arm wound around Jessies waist. Dont recall you being so publically demonstrative of your affections before, Kincaid.

Another faux pas, Mitch thought, though he made no move to disengage his hold on Jessie. Arching a brow, he gave Hank the same judgmental glance hed just been given. Demonstrative? Thats a mighty big word for an old coot like you. Im impressed youve managed to build your vocabulary past the grunts and three letter words that usually come flying out of that trap of yours.

A slow grin spread across Hanks face. Charming as ever, I see. I hate to it admit it, but I miss that questionable wit of yours. How long are you planning on sticking around this time?

Jessie tensed, her soft body instantly growing rigid against his. He hadnt been prepared for the old mans bluntness and even less prepared to put a limitation on his time with Jessie. Looking down at her and seeing the sudden change in demeanor, the almost desperate attempt to keep her face expressionless, Mitch knew she expected him to say two or three weeks, maybe a month. The longest Adam had ever stayed was six weeks, but that wasnt nearly enough time as far as Mitch was concerned. Maybe it was a mistake to keep up the masquerade, but if it meant being with Jessie then hed be whoever she wanted him to be.

Well Hank, he said slowly, Ive been giving that a lot of thought and at the risk of being publically demonstrative of my affections Mitch whipped Jessie around, pulling her up

hard against his chest. Ill stay for as long as shell have me. Blue eyes met brown and it was like watching the sun rise the way Jessies face lit up.

In a shaky voice she asked, Youre serious?

Baby, you have no idea how serious I am. Im tired of trying to save the world, Jess, and I dont want you to have to spend the rest of your life saving me. I want this time to be different. This time, I want to take care of you.

Jessies heart hammered against her ribs. Was he really going to stay for good? She spoke to Hank, but her eyes never left Adams. Are you listening to this, because I may need a witness when I sue Mr. Kincaid for breach of promise.

Hank chuckled. Im listening, but judging by that sappy look on his face, Id say he intends to hang on to you, Jess.

Somewhere between Adams murmured vow to never let her go again and the passionate kiss that followed, Hank discreetly slipped away. In truth, he could have tied tin cans to his legs and danced out of the barn singing The Star Spangled Banner and she wouldnt have noticed. Nothing existed but this man and this moment. Swept away by emotions that were much too turbulent to describe, Jessie could do little more than stare into Adams handsome face in a daze. Shed always had strong feelings for him, but what stirred in her heart right now went far beyond that.

Say something, Mitch pleaded. I know I kind of sprang this on you so if you need some time to think about it Ill understand.

No, its not that, I want you to stay.

But?

Jessie ran her fingertips over the crease in his forehead. Dont look so worried. I want you here, Adam, Im just afraid that you didnt really think this out. You always love being here for the first three or four weeks but after thatwell, you get restless. I know how important being a Special Ops agent is to you and Ive accepted that I have to share you.

But it makes you unhappy.

Yes, she admitted, but I can deal with that. What I cant deal with is you making promises you cant possibly keep.

Mitch cupped her face in his hands. Look at me, Jess. I dont want that other life anymore. What I want, what I need is so be with you.

You say that now, but

And Ill be saying it a month from now, a year from now, ten years from now.

Jessie drew in a shuddering breath. You dont know how much I want to believe that.

Believe it, he whispered, slanting his mouth across hers.

Mitch poured his heart out in a slow, tender kiss, willing her to feel the depth of his emotions for her. The knowledge that she didnt trust him not to leave cut deep, but he reminded himself it was Adam whod planted those doubts in her head, not him. She had no reason to

believe he wouldnt do exactly as his brother had, but Mitch was determined to prove it to her. One day at a time.

***

Jessie leaned forward, coaxing Serina into a dead run. Behind her, Adam was doing his best to get Diablo to catch up but for some reason his horse seemed to be a little out of sorts today. Maybe she should have Hank take a look at the stallion and make sure there werent any health issues. Diablo had always been a handful, so much so that Jessie had debated on whether to keep him or not. Then Adam had come into her life and the horse had been as taken with the man as she was. No one but Adam had been able to ride the spirited horse since.

She reined Serina into a gallop then slowed her pace to a trot, concerned that Diablo hadnt overtaken them. Jessies mare was fast, but she was no match for Adams horse. She glanced back, certain shed find the pair of them not far behind, and was a little alarmed to discover they hadnt even crested the last hill. Jessie turned Serina around, her eyes scanning the vast expanse of pasture land. Her brows drew together when she spotted them top a hill that was a good thousand yards back where man and horse came to a stop.

What in the world was Adam up to? She watched curiously as he leaned over Diablos neck for several minutes, patting him now and then. Then Adam straightened up, dug his heels in, and they were off. Chucks of sod flew out behind Diablo as he thundered across the pasture. The wind whipped Adams hair back as he hunkered down over the stallions neck, both of them glorious in their flight. Strong, muscular, handsome, wholly male; they were quite a pair. Jessies breath locked in her chest.

My God, she gasped, Im in love with him!

For three years shed given herself to Adam. Three years of her life had been spent watching him leave and waiting for his return, and never in all that time had she felt anything but a strong affection for him and a longing for something more. No, that wasnt true, she admitted to herself. She had loved Adam in her own way, but never like this; never with such fire and passion, never with this consuming need to share every part of her life with him. But how did he feel?

Mitch was apprehensive as hell. Diablo had been giving him trouble the entire ride. Unfortunately for him, the horse was smart; he hadnt been fooled for one minute. He knew Mitch wasnt Adam and his acceptance of this new rider was given grudgingly. It didnt take Mitch long to realize how important it was for him to gain the horses trust. Jessie might be able to overlook all the other bumbles hed made, but surely shed suspect something wasnt quite right if Diablo continued to balk every time they went for a ride. So hed waited until she was far enough ahead of him to rein his horse in.

Leaning down, he stroked the stallions neck, crooning softly until Diablo stopped pawing at the ground. We need to come to an understanding, pal, because you have the power to destroy things between Jessie and me. Shes everything Ive ever dreamed a woman could be, and I intend to hold onto that dream for all Im worth. Now you and I both know Im not Adam, but if you help keep my little secret I swear youll live out the rest of your life right here on this ranch with nothing but the softest straw to sleep on and the finest grain to fill your belly, maybe even a few pretty fillies in your stall, what do you say?

Diablo threw up his head, giving a low nicker. Mitch didnt know much about horses, but he knew enough to recognize the horses response was a good sign. Hed seen how Diablo reacted to Del and some of the other men. Sometimes hed snort or let out a long, high pitched neigh and pin his ears back, other times hed just blow air out of his nostrils and paw at the ground. He wasnt doing any of those things now. He stood perfectly still, his head held up proudly, and Mitch couldnt help the reverence he felt for this majestic animal.

His gaze shifted across the pasture where Jessie waited. How had she gotten to him so fast and so completely? Hed only intended to stay a few weeks, give Jessie the good memories she deserved, then move on. Now he couldnt even envision a life without her. And how was he going to explain to his parents, his sister, his friends, why she thought he was Adam? Mitch pressed his heels into Diablos side, giving him full rein. He couldnt think about it right now, not with Jessie waiting for him.

Exhilaration. That was the only word Mitch could use to describe the feeling that charged through him as they sailed across the pasture. He didnt have much experience riding horses but he didnt have any trouble staying in the saddle. Diablos movements were so graceful, so smooth, Mitch had the sensation of flying and he couldnt say with any degree of certainty that the horses hooves were even touching the ground at all. Within a matter of minutes they were practically on top of Jessie and her horse. Pulling back on the reins, he came along side of them, grinning from ear to ear.

I guess Diablo decided he was happy to see me after all.

You were magnificent, both of you, she beamed.

Mitch patted the horses neck affectionately. He sure can ride like the wind, cant he?

He needed to run off some that high spirit otherwise hed be chomping at the bit the whole time were riding fence. She turned Serina around, calling over her shoulder, If you two are through showing off, we have work to do.

Dont listen to her, boy, Mitch said as they trailed after her. Shes just jealous because youre faster than Serina. He leaned forward, lowering his voice. And thanks for not giving me away.

They rode for hours, stopping to repair any barbed wire that had come loose and marking posts that either needed to be reset or replaced altogether. By the time they arrived back at the ranch, Mitchs muscles ached from all the time hed spent straddling Diablo. Jessie didnt seem to have any side affects at all, but then she probably did this all the time. He wasnt happy with the idea that she went out alone while all the ranch hands were off tending to the cattle. It terrified him to think what could have happened if shed been thrown from her horse or tangled with a piece of barbed wire. She could lay there for hours before any of the men returned to discover she was missing. Well, there wasnt anything he could do about the past, but he was going to make damn sure she didnt ride out alone again.

Mitch followed Jessies lead as she removed the saddle and blanket from Serina then replaced the bridle with a halter and tethered her horse just outside the stall. After storing everything back in the tack room they brushed down the horses, grained them, laid down fresh straw, and finally headed up to the house. They showered together, which was definitely the highlight of his day, then trudged down to the kitchen to start dinner for the ranch hands.

What are you doing? Jessie asked, when he plucked a handful of potatoes from the bin and carried them to the sink.

You said we were having steak and baked potatoes for dinner. I thought Id get these washed up and in the oven while you put the meat on the grill. When she just stood there gaping at him, he wondered if Adam had been the one to do the grilling. Did you want to switch jobs? Id be happy to do the steaks instead.

No, I Jessie shook her head. Its just that youve never even offered to help before.

Mitch closed the distance between them and gathered her in his arms. It was wrong of me, Jess. You work too hard as it is and it was incredibly inconsiderate of me to let you make the meals by yourself.

Jessie smiled up at him. Who are you, she teased, and what have you done with Adam?

Pain shot through his heart. Hes dead, Mitch thought, as the grief over his brothers loss renewed itself. What would you say if I told you he was gone, that he was never coming back?

Jessie stood on her toes and planted a kiss on his lips. Id say I like the new and improved Adam much better.

Guilt was steeped on top of the other emotions battering his heart. Why did you put up with it, Jess? You should have booted me out long ago for the way I treated you.

She wound her arms around his neck. Youre a good man, Adam, you always have been. Maybe you werent the most considerate man when it came to things like making dinner, but I didnt mind because I like taking care of you. Besides, you made up for it in other ways.

Mitch frowned. How, by taking you to bed?

Chapter 4
Well, there is that, she grinned, recalling the heated love-making session in the shower not thirty minutes before. Adam didnt seem too amused, judging by the somber look on his face, and Jessie realized how important it was for him to know it was more than just great sex he brought to the relationship. Kincaid, do you honestly believe thats all youre good for? So what if you have an aversion to cooking and housework? Youve always been more than willing to help around the ranch and youve never been anything but kind and caring towards me. Youre good to me, and you fill a void that no one else could.

Kind and caring, he said derisively. How caring was it to abandon you for months at a time, or to just pop up unannounced expecting you to welcome me with open arms? It was Adam he was angry with, Adam who had hurt her time and time again, yet he took on the guilt and shame as if it was his own.

I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to this relationship. Yes, its lonely sometimes but I have the ranch work to keep me busy. The hardest part was not knowing if you were okay, or ifif each good-bye was the last.

Mitch hugged her to him fiercely. Im so sorry, Jess. If I was half as smart as Ive always prided myself in being, I never would have left you. But you wont have to wait and worry ever again.

Jessie squeezed her eyes shut, wanting with all her heart to believe what he was saying, but she knew the strong pull his job had on him. It was an illusion to think Adam would really be

content to mend fences all day or tend to the livestock. He was an adventurer at heart, born to play the role of hero, and nothing she could ever say or do was going to make any difference. Granted, these past few weeks had proved hed changed in some ways, but deep down inside he was still the same. Hed always long for the excitement and danger of being a Special Ops agent, and in the end hed resent her for holding him back.

What about your brother? Youll worry about him incessantly. You said yourself Mitchs heart wasnt really in it and that you always felt the need to watch out for him. How will you live with yourself if something happens to him?

Mitch stroked her hair absently. So Adam had known all along that it wasnt the career hed have chosen for himself. He pressed a kiss to Jessies temple. He wont stay if Im not there.

Good, Im glad. I know how much he means to you and youll feel a lot better about being here if you know hes not out there risking his life. Maybe you can even convince him to come here for a visit.

Maybe, Mitch said, unable to keep the sadness from his voice. Wed better get dinner started or well have revolt on our hands.

It would have been impossible to miss his desolate tone, but Jessie didnt press him for an explanation. When he was ready to talk hed share everything, but she had a sinking feeling it had something to do with his brother. It wasnt abnormal for Adam not to confide in her right away, though hed held out longer than usual this time, but she did find it strange and a little disconcerting that he hadnt even regaled her with stories of the good things that had

happened. She liked it when he told her about the pranks they pulled on each other because it was one of the rare times Adam truly let himself go. Rubber snakes, smoke bombs, oatmeal planted in the toe of someones boot; this was the light hearted side he kept hidden from the world, the part she wanted desperately to draw out. But that was reserved for his buddies and his brother, and sometimes Jessie found it difficult not to resent them all for it.

***

I finally told Jessie about the Bogota mission. Not classified information, of course, but about losing the young woman who got caught in the crossfire. It was killing me, not knowing if it was my bullet that struck her down. At first I balked at reliving those last few moments of her life, but Jesswas patient. She wrapped her arms around me, telling me over and over that everything happens for a reason and the womans death served some greater purpose even if it wasnt immediately evident. I hope shes right.

We spent the greater part of the night talking. Well, I talked and she listened. It wasnt easy. I ranted and ravedlike a lunatic, sometimes even directing it at Jessie, but she just smiled in her understanding way until my anger was spent. After analyzing what happened that day, I realized there was no way possible I could have been responsible for the womans death. Based on the way her body had pitched forward before dropping to the ground, the shot had come from behind her. All of my men, including me, clearly saw the womans face. How could any of us forget the look of sheer terror as she raced towards us or the shock that registered the moment the bulletmade impact? In time, with Jessies help, I know the pain will lessen and Ill be ready to take on another mission. What would I ever do without her?

Mitch closed Adams journal. Hed had a rough time dealing with the womans death too until Adam explained that none of them could have been responsible. His brother neglected to mention the role Jessie played in figuring it out. If she hadnt been there pushing Adam to remember every detail, he might never have gotten over it. And since they all had a tendency to repress any thoughts about the ones they lost, it was possible none of them would have been able to rid themselves of the guilt. Whether she knew it or not, by healing Adams wounded heart, Jessie had helped each and every one of them. Thinking about it now, Mitch realized that wasnt the first time Adam had returned to the team with insightful reflections that had benefited at least one of the men.

No doubt Adam considered it a weakness, this need he had for Jessie. After all, he was the team leader, the one everybody else looked to for strength, the one with all the answers. Only Mitch knew the truth about his twin, at least where Jessie was concerned. After reading the first several pages of the journal, however, he was beginning to wonder if hed known Adam even half as well as he thought he did. Adam had cared for Jessie, that was obvious, but hed used her more as a crutch for his own shortcomings than anything. And what had she gotten out of the relationship? The best shed come up with so far was that hed filled a void nobody else could.

A heaviness settled deep in his chest as he returned the journal to its hiding place. How could he even hope to make it up to Jessie? No wonder wariness hovered behind those beautiful blue eyes of hers whenever he promised not to leave her; Adam had made it abundantly clear that his job would always come first. Hed been good to her while he was there, treated her like she was something special. Jessie had the power to take away his nightmares and that was the void Adam filled; the desire to feel needed.

Adam?

Mitch whirled around. Jess, you scared the hell out of me.

What are you doing in the closet?

Iuhcouldnt find my pocket watch, the one my brother gave me. I thought maybe I left it in my duffle bag.

Jessie went to him and slipped her arms around his waist, carefully masking the anxiety she felt. How many times over the past few weeks had he forgotten where things were? Its in the top drawer where you always keep it. Oh Adam, I do wish youd tell me what happened on that last mission.

I cant, Jess. I need to work through this on my own.

Her stomach knotted. But we always talk it out. You cant do it without me, Adam, you told me so yourself.

Mitch shook his head. I have to stop relying on you to put the pieces back together. Its not right to unload all my issues and expect you fix them.

Jessies arms dropped to her sides. Then why are you still here? She asked dully.

What kind of question is that? Im here because I want to be with you.

Why? Im of no use to you if doing this alone is what you really want.

Of no use Mitch gripped her shoulders. You listen to me Jessie Buchanan, youre more to me than just a sounding board or a cure for whatever wounds I cant heal on my own.

She lifted her eyes to his. If thats true, what am I to you, Adam?

Everything, Mitch thought, she was everything to him. In less than a month this woman had become a part of him, had become the center of his world. Hed have given anything at that moment to tell her the truth, but he couldnt. If he told her who he really was he might lose her for good and that was a risk he wasnt willing to take. Reaching out, Mitch gently caressed her cheek.

I know our relationship has been pretty one-sided up to this point. Youve done all the giving and Ive done all the taking, but it shouldnt be like that, Jess. I care for you, more than Ive ever cared for any woman and I wantno, I need to prove to you that Im not here because I want you to fix whats broken just so I can run off again.

But I want to help, Adam. And I dont see how we can build any kind of relationship if your mind isnt even here half the time. You used to share your feelings with me, the good and the bad. Dont you trust me anymore?

Oh, sweetheart, its not a matter of trust.

Or was it? Wasnt he betraying her trust by not telling her he wasnt really Adam? God, hed made such a mess of things. How was he ever going to undo the things hed done? Hed lied to her right from the beginning and he continued to lie to her, packing them one on top of the

other, day after day. What would happen when it all came tumbling down? Shed hate him. Shed despise him for all the dishonesty and shed never allow herself to trust in him again.

Mitch took her hand then led her back to the bed and sat down, pulling her onto his lap. Look Jess, I cant tell you everything that happened out there, at least not yet. But maybemaybe as I come to terms with it myself, I could tell you. A little at a time, you know?

Okay, she agreed reluctantly, but you have to promise that if it gets to be too much, youll come to me. Im worried about you. You seemdifferent.

Mitch drew in a shallow breath. Different in what way?

I dont know, she shrugged. Just little things like forgetting where your boots are kept and not remembering how to saddle your horse. And the way you kiss me, even the way you make love isnt the same.

Male pride made him ask, I dont satisfy you?

Jessie laughed. Oh no, quite the opposite.

Thank God, he said with a grin. Sowhats different about it now?

Well, for one thing, you kiss me like you mean it.

And I didnt before? When she didnt say anything, Mitch tightened his arms around her. Talk to me, sweetheart.

Jessie let her head rest on his shoulder, silently berating herself for what shed said. But she hadnt been lying, it was different. Youre a terrific kisser, she prefaced her explanation. Its just that now I feel like youknow its me youre kissing.

Mitch closed his eyes. God, baby, Im so sorry. I never meant to

I know, she said softly.

He held her for several minutes, unable to grasp how Adam could have been so oblivious to Jessies emotions. And as much as it pained him to know how poorly shed been treated, Mitch needed to hear the rest. More importantly, Jessie needed to say it. Her love for Adam had to have been enormous to overlook his shortcomings, and that stung almost as much knowing his brothers inability to return that love had hurt her. Intentional or not, Adam hadnt done right by her and Mitch was at a loss as to how he could make up for it.

Mitch eased her back onto the bed. Propping himself up one elbow, he looked down at the woman whod come to mean so much to him. He wanted to tell her how beautiful she was, how she made his heart race with just a smile, how her soft touch made him tremble. How much he loved her. But he didnt say any of those things because she thought he was Adam. When the time was right hed confess his love, but only when she knew who he really was.

You said making love was different too. He gently wiped away the tear that streaked down the side of her face then leaned down and kissed her. Please, Jess, I need to know.

Jessie considered her words carefully before speaking. Over the years, shed suppressed her own feelings, always placing Adams needs above hers, and up until now she hadnt allowed

herself to dwell on the things that were lacking in their relationship. Shed simply accepted that Adam wasnt capable of reciprocating the feelings she had for him. After all, he hadnt promised forever and if she was willing to settle for that, it was hardly his fault. But looking at him now, seeing the genuine pain in his eyes, she finally had to admit to herself that it wasnt enough.

It was always good between us, she began hesitantly. I dont want you to think I cried myself to sleep every night or that I secretly resented you couldnt give more of yourself. Its justwell, it seemed like you used making love to me as a way to forget the awful things youd gone through rather than a way to express how you felt about me. Jessie stopped when she saw the look of mortification on his face. Oh Adam, Im sorry! I didnt mean to hurt you, honestly. It was probably just my imagination or maybe I was feeling sorry for myself.

Stop it, Mitch growled. Dont you dare blame yourself for Adfor my inadequacies!

Tears welled up in her eyes. Youre angry with me. I knew I shouldnt have told you. I should have just kept it all to myself and

Jessie was silenced when Adams mouth captured hers in a hard, hungry kiss. A soft moan vibrated in the back of her throat when his hand glided up her side to gently cup her breast. His thumb rasped across the peak, slowly moving back and forth until her whole body ached for his touch. He tortured her with the gentle kneading of her sensitive flesh, tormenting her even further when his tongue danced around hers; taunting and teasing and driving her half mad with desire.

I want you, he whispered hoarsely. You have no idea what you do to me, Jess. He fumbled with the buttons on her shirt, popping several of them in his haste to remove it, then just

as quickly dispensed with her bra. His eyes raked over her silky skin before he reached for the snap on her jeans. Tonight Im going to make you forget, Jess. Im going to make love to you until you cant remember how it was before. He shoved her jeans and panties off in one fluid motion then stood up and tore off his own clothes. Heat surged through his body as he lowered himself over her. Tonight is for you, my love, only you.

***

Jessie watched them from her balcony window, an irrational uneasiness clinging to the back of her mind. Hank had pulled the tractor up to the garage and enlisted Adams help in fixing whatever it was that ailed it. It was losing power, hed told them, and since the other men would be out with the herd or mending fences all day, Adam was nominated to be his assistant. She was sitting at the kitchen table sipping her second cup of coffee for the morning while Hank waited for Adam to get ready.

Have you checked the torque amplifier? Adam asked as he pulled on his boots.

Jessies head shot up, looking first at Adam then at Hank. The older man arched a brow at her, but other than that his facial expression didnt give anything away. They both knew Adam was good at a lot of things, but understanding the mechanics of a tractor wasnt one of them.

You been reading farm magazines, boy?

Mitch didnt miss a beat. By now he was used to thinking fast to cover up his blunders. No, no magazines, Hank. Ive succumbed to the lure of the computer age. I figured if I was going to live on a ranch Id better know something about the equipment that keeps it

running. Ive been using Jessies computer to educate myself. The truth was, hed spent a little time with a farmers widow one summer a few years ago and had picked up a thing or two about tractors and even combines, but he wasnt about to admit that to either of them.

The tension in Jessies shoulders eased. You told me you were just e-mailing your buddies and all this time you were learning about tractors?

Mitch grinned. I wanted to impress you, honey. Cant blame a guy for that, can you?

She smiled back at him. No, I suppose not. So how long are you two going to tinker with that thing? I need to run into town for grain and some other supplies.

Shouldnt be more than a couple of hours, Hank said. Maybe even less now that I have a self-educated tractor expert to help me out.

Mitch didnt bother to respond. Crossing the kitchen, he leaned down and gave Jessie a kiss. If Im not back in two hours, come and rescue me.

That had been an hour ago. Jessie moved away from the window but she couldnt let go of the nagging feeling that something wasnt right. Adam had been here for nearly six weeks now, and she thought maybe thats what was bothering her. She kept expecting to see that look in his eyes, the one that told her he was getting restless and would soon be gone. Instead, he seemed quite content to spend his days helping out with the endless chores around the ranch. Most of the time he was with her, but when he knew whatever she had to do for the day wouldnt take her far from the house, hed opt to accompany Hank. He was kind and considerate and had completely lost his discomfort at showing his affection towards her when others were

around. She should have been grateful for the changes in him, but for some reason it put her on edge. It was like waiting for a bomb to drop, she thought dismally.

Jessie rubbed at her temple. Why couldnt she make herself believe hed really changed and that he wasnt going to pick up and leave any day now? Why did she still have doubts when hed been so loving and attentive? Or was that why she had them? The Adam she knew had been intensely sexual, but not attentive. When they were alone he was constantly touching her, kissing her, and inevitably making love to her, but all that ended the moment someone else came into the room. It was almost as if he felt it made him look weak to show her so much affection in front of other people and though it had hurt, eventually shed just accepted it as a part of who he was. Now all that had changed. Shed fallen in love with him, with the Adam hed become over the past several weeks, and she was terrified shed wake up one morning to find hed reverted back to his old self.

And he still hadnt told her about the mission, at least nothing that revealed why she still saw that haunted look in his eyes when she came into the room unexpectedly and caught him unaware. Hed told her theyd been sent to rescue a journalist and his wife and that the poor woman had been brutalized repeatedly in front of her husband. Hed been genuinely horrified to find the woman so out of her mind that shed fought him as hed carried her out of the facility. He told her how guilty he felt because theyd spent a week planning the rescue even knowing what was probably happening to the couple. Hed refused to say anything more, telling her once again that he just needed more time.

But it wasnt just his evasiveness about the mission that bothered Jessie. He was hiding something else, she was sure of it. The absentmindedness, the things he should have known but

didnt, certain mannerisms that hed never displayed before; all of it added up to something, but what? And there were other things too, like the frequent phone calls to his parents, and the lack of calls to his brother. Adam never had a problem with her being in the room when he called his parents, though she usually made an excuse to leave out of courtesy. As for calls to his brother, hed always wandered outside to make those and shed understood it was because they often discussed the missions theyd been on or the one that was coming up. But he hadnt done that the entire time hed been here and there were only two conclusions she could draw from that. Either he and Mitch had a falling out and werent speaking or worse, Mitch had been killed. She prayed it was simply a disagreement between the brothers because she just couldnt bear the thought of him not only losing Mitch, but trying to cope with it on his own.

Feeling helpless and frustrated, Jessie considered programming her computer to automatically copy any e-mail correspondence into a hidden file. It wouldnt be difficult. Her father, for whatever reason had been totally fascinated with computers and how they worked. Hed taught her a lot of things about safe-guarding the information stored in the computer, especially as it pertained the ranchs finances, but hed also shown her a thing or two about retrieving files that had been deleted and how to detect if anyone but Jessie and her father had been tampering with it.

No, she couldnt do it no matter how much she wanted to know what was really going on with Adam. Shed promised to be patient and wait until he was ready to confide in her. Still, he didnt seem to be in any hurry to do that and in spite of how well they got along and how happy she was with the way their relationship seemed to be growing stronger, Jessie couldnt help feeling it would never be quite right as long as he kept shutting her out. As she stood there

contemplating how to get him to open up, her eyes strayed to the closet. A memory stirred, and before she knew it she was standing inside peering guiltily at his duffle bag.

The day shed come into the bedroom and found him standing in the closet, Adam told her he was looking in his bag for the pocket watch his brother had given him. She hadnt given it much thought at the time because shed been too concerned that he didnt seem to remember it was always kept in the top dresser drawer. But now she was certain hed been putting something inside the bag and had to wonder if hed only been trying to distract her by saying he was looking for the watch. Casting a quick glance at the bedroom door, Jessie knelt down beside the bag and slowly pulled back on the zipper.

Empty. With a disappointed sigh, she started to close it back up again when something caught her eye. Leaning closer, Jessie could see the bottom lining of the bag seemed to be uneven as if something was tucked beneath it. She hesitated for several minutes before curiosity won over the rush of guilt. Jessie carefully pried the corner up and reached beneath, pulling out a hard bound journal. Her hands shook as she opened it up and started to read. The first entry was dated three months before she and Adam had met.

This journal was presented to me by my mother who says I internalize too much and insists it will be therapeutic to write down the things I dont feel I can talk about. So, where do I begin? Do I start by admitting Im a total mess, that the drawbacks of being a Special Ops agent are now battling the rewards? I tell myself I can handle it, but it gets harder with each mission. My men and I are damn good at what we do, but being the best doesnt always mean were successful. There are things that are simply out of our control, and thats what eats at

me. Those missions that failed, the men whove lost their lives trying to save someone else, the innocent victims who paid the price because we couldnt reach them in time.

Sometimes it feels like my head is going to explode because I cant get the images out of my head. So I drink. I tell Mitch and my parents that Ive discovered this quiet little island and that it helps me regroup to be off by myself. But the truth is, I hide out in sleazy hotels and drink until the images disappear. I drink until I cant remember anything; day and night have no distinction. Mitch tells me he loses himself in the first small town he comes to and that the peace and quiet heals him. But I wonderis he drinking too?

Jessie blinked back the tears. God, he sounded so lost, so lonely. Shed had no idea about the drinking binges. Adam had never had anything stronger than an occasional beer while he was staying with her and hed certainly never gotten drunk. Her heart ached for all the pain hed suffered, for the sacrifices hed made for the sake of others. And she forgave him. She forgave him for all the times he seemed so distant and for using her to forget. She forgave him for leaving her, for all the lonely nights, for all the tears.

Jessie drew in a deep breath and turned the page. There was more of the same; more missions, more drinking binges, women he didnt bother to name. But there were also passages about the men he worked with and his brother. Not about the missions they went on, but the friendship they shared and the closeness that came from watching out for each other. He lost himself during those dark times between missions, but always in those last few days before Adam returned to the team, it was his love for Mitch that drew him back out. His brother needed him, he wrote, and he couldnt bear to disappoint Mitch by letting him know how far down hed

sunk. So he sobered up and came back pretending that he was ready to take on the next assignment.

I was on a downward spiral with no way to stop myself. I couldnt leave Special Ops because it was too much a part of me. How ironic that being an agent was both my saving grace and the source of my destruction. Then I met Jessie. Halfway through my second whiskey sour of the night, I looked up and spotted her across the little bar. Blond hair, blue eyes, and a set of killer legs that practically had me drooling on the bar. Jessie was surrounded by four or five men who all looked like theyd beat the hell out of anyone who even dared to approach her. But she was by far the most beautiful woman Id ever seen and the thought crossed my mind that it might be worth taking a punch or two if I got to dance with her just once.

A soft smile formed on her lips when she remembered the night they met. It was hard not to notice to him, he was so incredibly handsome. Dressed in army fatigues, he looked out of place in the little bar and the boys had started in on the jeering remarks almost as soon as theyd arrived. Adam was less than subtle; his eyes followed her when Del asked her to dance, raking over her as if he was picturing her without any clothes. It excited her in a way shed never known before and when the dance was over, she excused herself and walked boldly up to the bar.

Are you going to ask me to dance or just sit there and gawk at me all night?

Chapter 5
The sexy grin hed given her had Jessie mentally undressing him just as hed done to her. Without a word hed taken her hand and led her out onto the dance floor and pulled her into his arms. She wasnt sure how she managed to stay on her feet because the minute she was pressed up against his lean, muscular body, her knees nearly buckled beneath her. The chemistry between them was overpowering, his masculinity so potent she could barely breathe. It felt good to be his arms and Jessie was elated when the slow dance ended and the band moved right into another.

Adam looked past her, nodding his head towards her ranch hands. What are the chances of me making it out of here alive?

Jessie smiled up at him. With or without me?

Sweetheart, I have no intention of leaving here without you. It would help to know my odds though.

A soft blush worked its way up her neck at what he was suggesting. I dont even know you, what makes you think Id leave with you? Adams head dipped down, his lips capturing hers in long, sensuous kiss that left her heart pounding wildly and her breath nonexistent. Oh, was all she managed to say before he drew her closer and kissed her again. Fifty-fifty, she whispered hoarsely when he lifted his head.

Adam grinned. Ive had worse odds and come out alive.

Jessie couldnt believe she was even contemplating leaving with a complete stranger, especially knowing full well what it was they were going to do once they left. She looked up at him timidly. I dont usually

I didnt think that you did.

Maybe we should get to know each other first.

Adams eyes darkened. Oh, believe me, sweetheart, I plan on getting to know you very, very well.

She blushed again, her cheeks burning. Do youhave some place we could go? You see, the boysI mean the men at my table are my ranch hands and they live in the bunkhouse.

And you wouldnt feel comfortable taking me back to your place with them so close by?

No, I wouldnt.

The song ended and Adam guided her back to his spot at the bar. Whats your name?

Jessie. Jessie, he repeated. A beautiful name for a beautiful woman. Im Adam, Adam Kincaid.

Its nice to meet you Adam.

She glanced back at the table, a little unnerved to find how closely they were being watched. Turning back to Adam, she could see why they all seemed so concerned. He was a big

man, at least six foot three, with broad shoulders and arm muscles that rippled with every movement he made. And he was looking at her as if he wanted to devour her. Her body trembled in response and for a moment the insanity of what she was about to do made her falter.

Listen, Adam, Ive never done this before and I have to confess Im a little scared.

I wont hurt you, Jess, he said softly, and if its any consolation, Im a little scared myself.

Jessie laughed. The idea of this man being scared of anything was ludicrous. I highly doubt that.

Well its true. He reached out and took her hand. Ive never had a long term relationship, Jess, but I can promise you this; if you leave this bar with me, it wont be a one night stand.

She had no reason to believe him, but she did. No man had ever made her feel this way, as if her entire body was on fire, and it stirred a passion in her she never even knew existed before that night. She wanted him, wanted to feel his hands on her skin, wanted Adam to kiss her as hed done on the dance floor and to feel the heat of him deep inside where no man had ever touched her before. Shed slipped her hand from his and asked him to wait there.

None of the men were happy with her decision and Del had been quite vocal about how dangerous it was to leave with a man shed only just met. But Jessie held her ground. It was none of his business what she did or who she spent her time with, shed told him. With a defiant flip of her head, shed left them and returned to Adam.

Adam rose from his stool and looped his arm around her waist. If looks could kill, Id be dead about five times over by now.

Theyll get over it, she said flippantly as they emerged from the bar. Inside, however, her stomach was busy performing a series of acrobatic routines. I rode into town with one of the boys so youll need to give me a lift in the morning.

Adam pulled her closer to his side. Ill make sure you get home safe, but I doubt it will still be morning when we finally roll out of bed. He stopped beside a black pick up and opened the passenger door, then lifted her effortlessly onto the seat. The place Im staying at is in a less than desirable part of town. Id like to take you some place nice, some place fitting a woman like you.

Theres some inexpensive hotels in mid-town, she suggested.

Adam shook his head. No, Jess, I want the best for you. Whats the most expensive hotel in town?

The Palace, but you really dont

Yes I do, he said firmly. He shut the door and hurried to the drivers side and climbed in. Point the way.

Jessie gave him directions then sat back in the seat with her hands clasped in her lap. Im not on the pill or anything, she told him, cringing at the way her voice shook.

Ive had a vasectomy so you dont need to worry about getting pregnant. He glanced over at her. We dont need to use condoms unless youd feel more comfortable if we did.

Jessie looked down at her hands. Never in her life had she talked about birth control or whether to use condoms or not. Do you normally use them? I meanwell, its not really any of my business how many women youve slept with, but if theres a chance

Im clean, he chuckled, obviously amused by her embarrassment. Listen, Jess, Im going to be straight with you. Ive never had sex without using a condom, not even after the vasectomy a year ago. Even so, I get a physical twice a year. My last one was less than two weeks ago and I got a clean bill of health. I havent been with a woman since.

Confused, Jessie asked, Why did you tell me we didnt need to use one then?

Adam reached across the seat and squeezed her hand. Because I dont want to. When I get inside of you, I dont anything between us.

Jessie let out a surprised gasp when the muscles deep in her abdomen clenched. With a smile, he lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a feathery kiss to her fingertips. Again her muscles contracted, leaving a throbbing ache in its place. She didnt say anything the rest of the way to the hotel, didnt utter a single sound as he walked her inside and registered. Her voice seemed locked in her throat as Adam guided her to the elevators and then to their room. Only when the door closed behind them and hed taken her hand and pulled her towards the bed did she manage to speak.

Adam, II have to tell you something first.

He reached for her shirt and start undoing the buttons. Im listening.

She licked her lips nervously, distracted for a moment by the movement of his hands as they slid from one button to another. IIve never done this before.

Thats pretty obvious; youre trembling like a leaf. He undid the last button then gave her a soft kiss. Easy, sweetheart, Ill take care of you. Trust me, he whispered, Id never do anything to hurt you.

Adam slipped the blouse off her shoulders then put his arms around her to unhook her bra. She stared up at him, her heart hammering so hard she could feel it pulsing in her throat. Her bra was tossed aside and a low moan pushed its way from her mouth when he cupped both her breasts.

So beautiful, he whispered. His hands lingered for a while, his eyes growing darker at her intense response.

Jessie sucked in a breath of air when he turned his attention to the zipper on her skirt. Adam, youre not listening, I said Ive never

I believe you, sweetheart, but its nothing to be ashamed of. We were attracted to each other and acted on it, its as simple as that.

Her skirt dropped to the floor, leaving her in nothing but a pair of low heeled sandals and black lace panties. She tried to tell him again, but her train of thought was totally derailed when he kicked his boots off then yanked his shirt over his head. When he shoved his jeans and boxers

down, Jessie let out a small, frightened squeak and took a few steps back. Shed seen pictures in Sex Education when she was in high school, of course, but the drawings in the book certainly hadnt prepared her for the real thing. He was fully aroused and extremely well endowed and Jessie backed away with the inane thought that death by impalement was definitely not the way she wanted to go.

Wait, wait, she croaked when he moved towards her, I cantdo this

Adam continued his advance and gently drew her into his arms. He kissed her softly, as if he was afraid shed break if he pressed too hard. I wont hurt you, he whispered against her lips.

She pulled her head back, her eyes wide and frightened. Im scared, Adam.

He stroked her hair, gathered her closer, and kissed her again. Why, sweetheart? His eyes stared into hers for a moment before suddenly narrowing in anger. Did someone hurt you, a boyfriend maybe? Is that why youre scared, someone got too rough with you?

No, its nothing like that.

His lips drew into a hard, thin line. You can tell me, Jess. If anyone dared lay a hand on you

She smiled up at him, her heart melting at the fierce, protective hold hed taken on her. No one has touched me, Adam. Ever.

The hardness dropped from his face, replaced by a look of wonder. Ever? You mean? She nodded slowly. Oh Jess, Jess

His mouth came down on hers and she was surprised not only by the incredible tenderness of it, but also to find his big body was trembling. He whispered her name again then steadily moved her back against the bed and eased her down onto the mattress. A small cry escaped her lips when he lowered himself over her. She could feel him against her belly, hot and hard and throbbing, and she wanted him more at that moment than shed ever wanted anything in her life. Adam took his time, languishing over her, kissing and caressing, until she felt she would explode if it went on much longer. Then his hand slid over her belly, down between her thighs, and blessedly brought the release she so desperately needed.

Breathless and feeling as if shed consumed one too many glasses of wine, Jessie could do nothing but cling to his massive shoulders as he gently kneed her legs apart and pressed himself into her. There was pain, but it was mixed with pleasure along with a maelstrom of emotions and sensations she couldnt even begin to describe. He sank into her slowly, stretching her inner muscles so gradually she was barely aware of the discomfort until at last she had taken him inside of her completely.

Jessie closed her eyes, filled with a strange sense of wonder that a man who was so strong, so undeniably male could be so gentle in his love making. But it wasnt always like that. In time, she learned there were two very different sides to Adam. He could be very tender, as hed been that first time, but it was more the exception than the rule. Most of the time he was filled with fire and passion, almost fierce in his love making and it wasnt until much later that

Jessie discovered why. It was subconscious, of that she was sure, but each time he buried himself deep inside of her, Adam was also burying a piece of his past.

***

Mitch made one final adjustment then crawled out from under the tractor. Okay, Hank, fire it up and take it for a spin.

A few minutes later Hank returned and climbed down from the tractor, giving Mitch an approving nod. Not bad for a city boy.

ThanksI think.

Giving his grease stained hands a cursory glance, Mitch realized just how satisfying it was to be fixing things and taking care of the ranch rather than doing the belly crawl in some God forsaken jungle praying hed survive long enough to complete his mission. He was happy here with Jessie, happier than hed ever thought possible. He would have considered his life just about perfect if only it was his name she called out when they were making love instead of his brothers.

I guess Id better get up to the house and clean off this dirt before Jessie takes off without me.

Shes a good woman, youd be wise to hang on to her.

Something in Hanks tone made him feel uneasy. I intend to. Hank eyed him for a moment as if he was contemplating whether Mitch was sincere or not. Finally, he gave a short nod.

Youre a lot alike.

Me and Jess?

That too, but I was talking about you and your brother.

The blood drained from Mitchs face. He could have played innocent and asked Hank what he meant but somehow he knew it would disappoint the old man and Mitch had far too much respect for him to add to the lies that had already been told. He glanced back at the house, his heart sinking in his chest. Jessie would never forgive him. Turning his eyes back to Hank, he was surprised to see there was no anger, no hostility or look of disgust for what hed done.

Hank leaned back against the tractor and pulled a cigar from his pocket, taking his time lighting it before he replied. I have to assume Adam didnt make it back safe from the last mission. I cant tell you how sorry I am about that. He blew out a puff of smoke, his eyes staring out across the land. He was a decent man and I think he genuinely cared about Jessie, but he wasnt right for her. He never would have made her truly happy, and as much as I hate to say it, Adam never could have loved her the way she deserves to be loved. He turned his head and looked at Mitch. He never could have loved her the way you do.

Mitchs shoulders slumped. Ive made such a mess of things, Hank. I thought I was doing the right thing by coming here. I just wanted Jessie to have one last time with Adam. I

wanted her to know that he loved her, to have the best possible memories to carry her through the pain of his death. His voice caught in his throat. I never expected to feel like this about her. I love her, Hank. I love her so much that I cant even imagine a life without her, but Ive weaved such a web of lies I dont know how to untangle it all without losing her.

Have you told her how you feel?

How can I do that when she thinks Im Adam? I want her to love me, not my brother. Mitch raked his fingers through his hair. God, that sounded so selfish.

Maybe so, but Adam would have understood.

Somehow I doubt hed be very understanding or forgiving about me taking his place in Jessies life. We shared a lot of things, but never our women.

Tell me something, Mitch. Didnt you find it a little strange that Adam never invited you to the ranch to meet Jessie?

Well, Iyes, I guess I did. She was very special to him and I admit I was a little hurt he never asked, but I figured it was because he didnt want anyone interfering with his time with her, including me.

Not including you, Hank said pointedly, especially you.

What is that supposed to mean?

Adam wasnt in love with Jessie anymore than she was in love with him, but they were good together and he wasnt about to give her up any sooner than he had to. He told me how it

was after a mission, how he felt all busted up inside and how being with Jessie was the only thing that made it all go away. He said he was just selfish enough to want that more than he wanted her to find the man who could really make her happy.

Mitch stared at Hank blankly for a moment before it finally sank in. Me? Adam kept us apart because he thought I was the one who could make her happy?

Hank nodded. He said bringing you here would be the biggest mistake he could ever make because Jessie would see in you all the things that were lacking in him. There was no doubt in his mind that you two would fall in love. Seems he was right.

Hope sprang up inside of him. You think Jessie is in love with me?

Mitch, Ive known that girl almost all her life. She loved Adam in her own way, but she wasnt in love with him and she never fooled herself into believing it was anything other than what it was. Shes changed since you showed up. You can see it in her smile, in the way her face lights up when you walk into the room. Shes head over heels in love with you. Unfortunately, as youve pointed out, she thinks youre Adam.

Misery lined Mitchs face. So how do I fix it Hank?

Wish I had an answer for you, son.

They stood there for several minutes, both of them trying to figure a way out that wouldnt end in disaster when Mitch was struck with a horrifying thought. You dont think Jessie knows, do you?

Not a chance.

But you figured it out.

Hank grinned. Thats because Im not in love you. Jess is a smart girl, but shes letting her heart overrule her head right now. You covered pretty well in there about the tractor, but eventually shes bound to add two and two and come up with four.

Is that what you did?

In a manner of speaking. At first I was just worried about you because you hadnt come down to the bunkhouse to see me after the first few days. There were a lot of little things that gave you away but the biggest one was not asking me about the ranch and how Jessie was doing. You see, theres a rancher about ten miles over thats been sniffing around Jess for the past few years. It never took Adam more than a day to come talk to me and ask if she was showing any interest.

Jealousy reared its ugly head. Is she?

Hank chuckled. Down boy, theres nothing going on between that pompous ass and your woman.

Rage simmered just beneath the surface. But hes been bothering her?

Comes around once a month or so in his big, fancy car with a hand full of flowers to ask Jessie out. She declines and he proceeds to tell her how a woman like her needs a man who can take care of her. Hank spat at the ground, looking thoroughly disgusted. He wants her ranch

just about as much as he wants her but, of course, Jessie refuses to sell. I guess he figures one day his persistence will pay off and hell have them both.

Over my dead body, Mitch growled. Why hasnt Adam put a stop to this?

Because Jessie asked him to stay out of it.

Thats it? Knowing this man is trying to steal her away from him, he just lets it go because Jessie asked him not to get involved? What the hell was he thinking? Mitch clenched his fists, his whole body shaking. Whats his name?"

Look, it wont do you any good. Adam was furious too when he found out, but this man is mighty powerful and hes got more money than he knows what to do with.

That wouldnt have stopped Adam from going over there and telling him to back off.

No, what stopped him was knowing how much trouble it would cause for Jessie when he wasnt around to protect her.

Protect her from what, has this man threatened her?

Not directly.

Damn it, Hank, spit it out. Whats going on around here and why hasnt Jessie said anything to me about it?

Hank took a couple of puffs from his cigar, eyeing Mitch thoughtfully through the cloud of smoke. Okay, but remember, you asked. Jessie hasnt said anything because she doesnt believe youre going to stick around to see it through.

Mitch took that one straight to the gut. Go on, what else?

Jud Wilkinson is his name. The Wilkinson ranch was mediocre at best while his Dad ran the show but when he passed away about ten years ago, Jud took over. He started buying up all the land around him, slowly building his herd until he became one of the wealthiest ranchers in the county. But that wasnt enough for Jud, he wanted more land, more money, more power, and the only way he could do that was to buy out the rest of the ranches in the area.

So hes trying to seduce Jessie so he can get her land. Surely hes figured out by now that she wont ever sell.

Not for her own sake, Hank said, but she might if she thought someone else would suffer for it.

Chapter 6
Mitch was silent for a moment. Whos he threatening to go after?

Theres three other ranches besides Jessies that havent sold out yet. Theyre family owned operations that have been around for generations. None of them really want to sell, but Wilkinson has offered them a lot more than theyd get from anyone else and Jessie knew it was only a matter of time before they folded.

Im afraid you lost me, Hank. What does that have to do with Jessies ranch?

The water from the mountains runs through all three of them, feeds into this ranch, and then into Wilkinsons ranch.

Mitch nodded as pieces of the puzzle began to snap into place. So all he has to do is gain control of the northern most ranch and hed be able to cut off the water supply to the other two as well as this one.

Yes, and unfortunately, the people who own it are the weakest link. The other two ranchers have a whole slew of children who help run the place so it isnt likely theyll sell, but Tom and Becky Sinclair only had one child, a daughter who got married last year and moved to Florida. When they started talking about selling out and moving to Florida to be near their daughter, Jessie got worried Wilkinson would snatch it up and cut off the water to the other ranches.

But wouldnt he be cutting off the water supply to his own ranch as well?

From that water source, yes, but hes got another healthy stream that flows some of his other land. Even if it wasnt enough to keep his herds going, hes got enough money to put in a few man-made ponds and transport water in. It wouldnt take long to push the other farms out of business if they had to start hauling in water for their cattle.

So what did he do, promise Jessie if she sold her land hed leave the others alone?

Yes, but shes not falling for it. Once shes sold out, she wont be able to stop him from doing the same thing to the other ranchers.

A slow smile spread across Mitchs face. Ive changed my mind about going to see Wilkinson.

Hank looked more than a little surprised. You have?

Yeah, I have a better idea. Do you think you could spare some time tomorrow to take a little drive with me?

To the Sinclair ranch I presume?

Mitchs smile broadened. Theres more than one way to skin a cat, old man.

***

Jessie tried to hide the guilt she felt for having read some of Adams diary but it wasnt easy, mostly because shed invaded his privacy but also because she now found it almost impossible not to throw her arms around him and tell him how sorry she was for all the things

hed gone through. On some level shed understood why he needed to be with her, but shed never really known the depth of that need, and whether Adam loved her as she loved him didnt seem as important as making sure he never fell back into that dark abyss of self destruction again. Yes, Jessie decided, she loved him enough to live with the long absences and lonely nights and the promises he meant to keep but just couldnt. Tucking the journal back beneath the lining of the duffle bag, Jessie made the decision that his happiness was more important to her than her own. As long as Adam needed her, shed be here for him.

Shed barely reached the bottom step when Adam and Hank came bursting through the front door covered in oil and grease. Well, did you get it fixed?

Purring like a kitten, Hank said.

Guess Im a lot better at this than I thought, Mitch grinned. I got the same results from Jessie just this morning.

Hank hooted with laughter, slapping Mitch on the back a few times while Jessie stood there blushing, half mortified by what hed said and half wishing she had time to drag him upstairs for a repeat performance. Deciding that getting even was a much better tactic than acting indignant, she crossed the room slowly, her hips swaying seductively.

Smiling up at Adam, and keeping her voice as seductive as her walk had been, she said, Have you ever noticed how quickly those soft, cuddly little kittens can turn on you? With those pointed little teeth and razor sharp claws, why they could just tear the skin right off of a man. She raked her fingernails lightly down the length of his chest, quite satisfied with how

pale hed gone and the soft groan that rolled in the back of his throat. Hank was still cackling as he wished Adam good luck and headed back outside.

Mitchs breath hitched when Jessies fingers continued to work their way down to his belt buckle. If I wasnt covered in dirt, Id haul that sexy bottom of yours upstairs and work some of the ornery out of you.

Jessie knew it wouldnt take much to get him to do just that. One little jab at his ego and shed have him where she wanted him. I dont know, she drawled, Ive got a lot of years of ornery built up inside of me. Are you sure youreup to it?

A small squeak was squeezed from her lungs when Adam swung her up into his arms, his eyes boring into hers with a hunger that made her body temperature jump several degrees. Hed always been exceptionally sexual, but since his return this last time, Adam had been nearly insatiable. His touch was almost reverent, as if each time was the first. He discovered new ways to arouse her, taught her new ways to arouse him, and when it was over Jessie was always left with a sense of weightlessness, as if she would just float up to the ceiling and drift away.

I love you, her heart whispered as he lowered her feet to the ground beside the bed. I love you, I love you she silently cried when he reached for the snap on her jeans and undressed her. It was a mantra that repeated itself over and over as he buried himself inside of her; their bodies moving in perfect rhythm, taking and giving until there was nothing left but a few shuddering breaths and a sigh of deep satisfaction.

Afterwards, they took a quick shower, laughing at the trail of oily finger and palm prints hed left all over her body. She insisted he clean them off since he was responsible for putting

them there, and Adam had eagerly complied with her wishes. She could still feel the slow, sensual movements of his hands as they glided over her soapy body and wondered if she would ever get enough of Adam Kincaid. Glancing across the seat of the old flat bed truck they were riding in and seeing the cocky little grin that turned up the corner of his mouth, she came to the conclusion that a lifetime with him would never be enough.

Mitch steered the old truck confidently into town, taking the few turns necessary to lead him to the Co-Op as if hed done it a million times before. He was glad Hank had confronted him and knew he wasnt Adam because now he had an ally, one who could keep him from making foolish mistakes like not knowing the way to town or how to get to the stores Jessie wanted to go to today. Hank had drawn a map of the town on a small piece of paper before theyd gone into the house and Mitch now had it tucked securely in his jeans pocket. Hank had also jotted down the names of the owners and any employees he knew Adam had met before.

It wont be that difficult, Hank assured him. Adam was always a little aloof towards the townspeople so they wont be expecting a big, friendly hello. And Jess is used to telling youI mean telling Adam who is who.

Mitch was leaning against the tractor as they talked, wondering once again if hed ever really known his brother. I dont get it, Hank. Adam was never shy around people and certainly never had any problems making friends. Hed been coming here to see Jess for almost three years, why would he act like that?

He didnt want them to like him. He thought it would be easier for Jessie.

An angry scowl marred Mitchs face. How considerate of him. If no one liked him, it would be easier on Jess when he got ready to make his final exit. Everyone would be patting her on the back and exclaiming how it was all for the best, good riddance, and all that, right? Hank merely nodded and let Mitch finish his tirade. I dont suppose he considered that she might need someone who was sympathetic? Who did he think was going to put Jessie back together when he left? Sure, it was okay for him to go to her when he was all busted up inside, but did he even once consider who was going to take care of her when he left for good?

I think he considered it, Hank said quietly. As a matter of fact I think he put a lot of thought into it.

Mitchs eyes blazed. Del? Oh, no, not a chance in hell

Not Del, son. You.

Me? He shook his head. Youre wrong, Hank. Adam never once suggested that I come here if anything happened to him. It was my idea to see Jessie.

Was it? You think your brother didnt know what he was doing when he told you all about her? Listen, son, I know Adam wasnt as good to Jessie as he should have been, but he did love her. You said yourself that journal he left was filled with accounts of his time here with Jess. Maybe it didnt start out as such, but he knew it would end up in your hands if anything bad happened to him. I think over time, he decided he wanted you to see her as he did, to see how special she was, because he knew youd go to her. Hank rubbed his chin. Granted, I doubt Adam considered youd show up masquerading as him, but I truly believe leading you to Jessie was his last gift to you, probably the greatest gift he could have given both you and Jess.

If that was his intention, he was right about one thing. Leading me to Jessie was the greatest gift he could have given me. Im not so sure Jess didnt get the short end of the stick though.

Dont be so hard on yourself, son, youre heart was in the right place. We just have to figure out how to tell Jessie in a way that will make her want to fall into your arms instead of taking a shotgun to your backside.

Looking at her now as he lifted her down from the truck, Mitch knew Hank was right about telling Jessie who he really was. She deserved honesty, deserved to know that Adam was dead and have her time to grieve over him, but not yet. If the worst happened and she couldnt accept Mitch after knowing the truth, he had to make certain shed be okay once he left. Wilkinson for one thing; financial security for another. The ranch was doing well enough and would probably continue to prosper with Wilkinson out of the way, but Adam had left a substantial amount of money to both him and Jessie and Mitch intended to make sure she got it all.

Hey, Kincaid, are you okay?

At the sound of Jessies concerned voice, Mitch reeled his thoughts in. He hadnt realized hed pulled her into his arms and was now holding her so tight she couldnt even move. He kissed her on the forehead and dropped his hold on her.

Sorry, honey, I was just thinking about how great it is to be with you.

So you decided to squash me like a bug to prove it? She teased.

Mitch looped his arm around her waist and propelled her towards the entrance to the CoOp. Any excuse I can come up with to hold you close is a good one. As they approached the door, Jessie started to pull away then looked up at him uncertainly when he tightened his hold on her. He stopped and brushed her lips with a soft kiss. Youre mine, Jess, and I intend to make sure everyone in this town knows it. And that includes Del and Wilkinson or any other man whos been trying to steal you away from me, understood?

Jessie was too choked with emotion to say anything. She nodded mutely then stepped into the grain store practically glued to Adams side. Shed never been so proud or happy in her life as when they walked in and got a double take from the store manager, Orin. A quick glance around revealed a few other astonished faces, among them was Orins wife and the towns biggest gossipmonger, Sally.

Sally bustled over to them before Orin had a chance to recover. Jessie, how good to see you. She didnt bother to hide her distain as her gaze shifted to Adam. I see youre back for another short visit.

Mitch smiled down at Jessie who was obviously uncomfortable with Sallys open hostility. Actually, Ive decided to stay permanently. Or until Jessie gets tired of having me trail after her like a love-sick fool. The look of pure adoration on Jessies face made his heart do a wild flip in his chest. I think I upset the balance of her life, Mitch whispered when Sally stomped off with a loud huff.

Jessie tried unsuccessfully to stifle the giggle that bubbled up in her throat. Shell really hate you now. You were one of her greatest sources of gossip.

Really? And just what sordid things has sour Sally been saying about me?

Jessie giggled again. Nothing youd care to hear, believe me. Now, if youre through causing trouble, Id like to get the grain loaded up so we have time to do the grocery shopping.

Mitch groaned. You never said anything about grocery shopping.

You never complained before.

Well Im complaining now. Id rather be back on the ranch, specifically upstairs. In bed.

Adam, hush, someone will hear!

Good, I want them to hear. Mitch pulled her up hard against his chest. I want them to know Im crazy about you and that Im done drifting in and out of your life.

Jessies lips trembled. Are you trying to make me cry?

No, sweetheart, Im trying to make you happy.

I am happy, Adam, happier than Ive been in my entire life.

Prove it.

What do you mean?

Prove it. Kiss me. Right here, right now, in front of all these people.

A small sob caught in the back of her throat as she pulled his mouth down onto hers and it was the sweetest kiss shed ever known. From the corner of the store she heard Sallys grunt of disapproval, but she didnt care. All that mattered was that Adam was kissing her in full view of everyone there, without hesitation, without embarrassment, and he wasnt holding back anything. When he finally released her, Jessie noticed with some satisfaction that Sallys face was almost as flushed as her own face was. The heated kiss was apparently all the proof the woman needed that Adam was serious about sticking around because she dropped the haughty demeanor and was actually civil to him while she rang up the grain purchase.

At the grocery store, Adam was just as open with his display of affection. If he didnt have his arm looped around her waist as she pushed the cart, he was stealing a kiss. By the time they left and headed back to the ranch, he had her so sexually aroused it was all she could do to keep from pouncing on him the minute they hauled the last of the groceries into the kitchen. They managed to put the refrigerated food away before they caved into desire and raced each other up the stairs to her room. The first round didnt last five minutes.

***

Im taking you into town to see a doctor.

Mitchs stern gaze told her there would be no more discussion on the matter. It was the third day in a row shed woken up looking pale and feeling sick to her stomach and her attempts at work at been half-hearted at best. She looked tired and drawn as if every movement took a monumental effort and he thought shed also dropped a few pounds. Shed shoved his concerns

aside for the past few days, insisting it was just a bug that would clear itself up but he wasnt taking any chances where her health was concerned.

Jessie rolled out of bed with a groan. I feel like a slug.

You look a bit like one two, he teased as he laid her clothes out on the bed for her.

Thank you, that makes me feel so much better.

He waited for Jessie to slip into her panties then helped her finish dressing. If youd gone to see the doctor two days ago when I suggested it, youd probably be feeling much better by now.

Jessie stuck out her bottom lip in a pretty pout. I dont like giving into sickness. Going to the doctor is an admission of defeat.

Mitch told her to sit on the edge of the bed then knelt down to put her shoes on for her. Well, slugger, now youre really sick and paying the price for your stubbornness. He stood up and pulled her to her feet. Well go see the doctor, get you doped up with medicine, then get you tucked back into bed.

I dont have time to lie around the house. The fence in the north pasture needs to be mended, two of the horses are due for their shots, then theres

Ill take care of it. He placed his hands on her shoulders and turned her towards the door, giving her a gentle nudge. Ive already asked Del to send one of boys over to fix the fence and Ill ask Hank to take care of the horses before we leave.

Jessie shot him an incredulous glance. You asked Del?

Yes, and I was very pleasant about it.

Fine, she said as they descended the stairs, the fence and horses are taken care of, but I still have to fix breakfast and

Kenny is handling breakfast for the boys and Im taking care of you. The way your stomach has been revolting at the sight of food lately, I thought a few pieces of toast and some herbal tea might settle it down. When she paused to peek into the kitchen, he put his arm firmly around her waist and swept her out onto the porch. Sit, he ordered, pointing to the porch swing. I cant imagine the smell of whatever Kennys concocting in there will sit well either so Ill bring your breakfast to you.

Youre fussing too much, Im perfectly capable of taking care of myself.

Mitch cupped her chin and planted a firm kiss on her lips. I like fussing over you. Now be a good girl and sit quietly until I come back.

Jessie dropped down onto the porch swing, a soft smile curving her lips. Shed never admit it to Adam, but she liked the way he was pampering her and taking charge of things. Hed never once offered to take control of the work that needed to be done around the ranch, always deferring to her before. She doubted hed even noticed what needed to be repaired or whether the horses and cattle were properly taken care of, but now he was pointing out things that needed to be tended to before she was even aware of them. She loved this new side of Adam, and she was finally beginning to believe the old, indifferent Adam had disappeared for good.

Here you go.

She took the small plate of toast and settled it on her lap before reaching for the cup of tea. This is very sweet of you. Are you going to grab your breakfast and join me?

Sorry, sweetheart, youre on your own. The boys will be here any minute clamoring for food and I promised Kenny Id set the table.

Jessie almost choked on the tea shed just sipped. Adam Kincaid doing a household chore? The world must be coming to an end.

Dont forget to duck when the sky starts falling, he laughed, because I also promised to help with dinner.

She shook her head in disbelief when he left her to go help Kenny and was still sitting there with a stunned look on her face when the ranch hands started piling onto the porch. For a moment they surrounded her, asking how she felt and assuring her theyd take care of everything until she was better. It warmed her heart to have all of them hovering over her acting like mother hens even though she was certain it was nothing more serious than a virus.

Go on, the lot of you, she shooed them inside.

Only Del lingered behind, eying her with concern. I need to ask you something, Jess, but Im worried it will upset you.

She smiled up at him. Dont be silly, weve been friends a long time, you can ask me anything.

He glanced back at the door before directing his gaze back to her. Its just thatwell, you know I have three sisters and theyre all marriedwith kidsso Ive been around them when He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked down at his feet.

Oh, for Heaven sakes, out with it Del. Is this a family thing? Do you need time off to visit your sisters?

No, no its not that. He looked up at her again. What Im trying to say is that Ive been around my sisters when they were pregnant.

Jessies smile broadened. One of your sisters is pregnant again? Thats wonderful, Del!

He let out a low groan. No, Jess, what Im getting at isyouve got the same symptoms; the queasy stomach, weight loss, being tired all the time. I thoughtis it possible youre pregnant?

Jessie laughed, shaking her head. Theres no chance of that. Adam had a vasectomy four years ago. Its incredibly sweet of you to worry about me but I promise its just a bug not a baby. Instead of being relieved by the news she couldnt possibly be pregnant, Del seemed saddened by it.

Im sorry to hear that. I dont mean about not being pregnant, its just that I know you wanted to have children someday.

Jessies mood sobered. I do, or at least I did. I guess sometimes you have to let go of one dream in order to have another. I know you never cared much for Adam, but hes changed and I really think hes going to stay this time.

Youre right, I never liked him. I didnt think he was good enough for you, but even I have to admit theres something different about him. He treats you right, the way you deserve, and I believe he genuinely cares for you.

You dont know how much it means to hear you say that.

All I ever wanted was for you to be happy, Jess.

I am happy, deliriously so.

I can see that. Del leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. Id better get inside before Kincaid busts my jaw for spending too much time with his woman.

Jessie grinned. It doesnt hurt to keep him on his toes.

Easy for you to say, its not your bones hell be breaking.

It wasnt until Del turned to go into the house that they noticed Adam standing silently just outside the door.

Chapter 7:- Chapter 7 Mitch only caught the tail end of the conversation but hed heard enough to make his heart swell with love for Jessie. It was also enough to squelch any remaining concerns he had about Del being a threat. The man cared for Jessie, that was obvious, but her happiness was more important to Del than any dreams hed had about being with her. Mitch had to respected that, albeit grudgingly.

Thanks for keeping Jess company while I finished helping Kenny. Del looked a little confused before he seemed to realize Mitch was sincere.

I, uh, think Ill go eat before it gets cold.

Jessie held her breath as the two men just stood there staring at each other until Adam finally stepped away from the door and let Del pass. Apparently theyd come to some silent agreement about her and for that she was grateful. Mealtimes had been somewhat uncomfortable with two of them dancing around each other, exchanging hostile glares, and grunting out replies if either of them was forced to speak to the other. For whatever reason, Adam had called a truce and Del had accepted it. Yes, she thought, things just might work out after all.

We need to go or well be late for your appointment.

Jessie popped the last piece of toast in her mouth, followed by a sip of tea. Its barely eight oclock, how did you manage to get an appointment this early? I didnt think they even opened until nine.

Mitch picked up her plate and took the cup she offered. I made the appointment yesterday.

I should have known.

I told you Id take care of you. Wait here while I put these in the kitchen.

Jessie laughed when he emerged with her purse dangling from his wrist. Thats quite a fashion statement, Kincaid.

Mitch shoved it into her hands. Just take it before Hank sees me. God knows Id never hear the end of it.

She managed to make it to the bottom of the stairs before a wave of nausea hit her. Clamping her hand over her mouth, Jessie made a mad dash around the corner of the house and promptly threw up the meager portion of food in her stomach. It was several minutes before she realized Adam was beside her, one hand holding her hair back, the other gently rubbing her back. With an embarrassed smile, she stood up and accepted the handkerchief he handed her.

Mitch tucked a stray curl behind her ear. Feel better now?

Not much, but Ill survive.

With Adams help, she was able to get to the pickup without falling down. Weak from tossing up everything shed eaten in the past few days, her legs were wobbly and uncooperative and she felt as if every ounce of energy had been zapped from her body. She was glad Adam had made the appointment for this morning because she wasnt certain if shed have any strength left at all if this went on much longer.

An hour later, Jessie was being shuffled through the inner sanctum of the medical facility and into a room. Dressed in nothing but the thin cotton gown the nurse had given her, she perched herself on the edge of the examination table to wait for her doctor. Unconsciously, her hand moved to her belly. What Del said that morning was true. She did want children of her own and shed have given just about anything to bear Adams child. But hed made it perfectly clear he didnt want them and had taken steps to ensure hed never be surprised by an unwanted pregnancy.

I wouldnt be a good father, hed told her. Id be gone more than Im home, leaving my wife to manage the childs care alone. It wouldnt be fair to her or the child. Right or wrong, the truth is I could never make the commitment it takes to have a family.

Jessie had smiled in a desperate attempt to mask her disappointment. I guess the good news is that we wont have to spend a fortune on birth control.

A light tap on the door and the appearance of Dr. Stewart brought her back to the present. Hello, Jessie, its been quite awhile since your last visit.

You know me, Liz, I have to be bleeding or near death to come in.

Elizabeth Stewart had been her doctor for as long as she could remember. Jessies mother and father had often invited Liz and her husband to the ranch for barbeques and shed gone to school with the Stewarts two sons. Even considering their long history, Jessie had a deep aversion to illnesses and stubbornly refused treatment until she had to be dragged in.

Liz studied the chart for a moment before setting it aside to take Jessies temperature. Your young man tells me youve been throwing up everything you eat for a several days now. She smiled when Jessies reply came out as nothing more than a mumble. He also said youve had a few dizzy spells along with a serious lack of energy. He suggested I check to make sure youre not anemic.

As soon as the thermometer was pulled out of her mouth, Jessie started downplaying all the symptoms. Im tired because this bug is slowing me down and the dizzy spells happened because I stood up too fast. As for being anemic

Adam said youd argue about it and instructed me not to listen to a word you say.

What? Youre taking his side after all the years weve known each other?

Hush and sit still while I take your blood pressure. He seems like a very nice young man and hes really worried about you. And Im not taking sides, but given your history of resisting medical attention, I have to agree some tests are in order. She removed the band from around Jessies arm. Blood pressure is normal at least.

What do you think it is? Jessie asked after Liz had examined her ears, nose, and throat.

Im not sure. There doesnt seem to be any infections, no redness, eyes are clear. Have you and Adam been practicing safe sex? Because if I had to guess, Id say you were pregnant.

The safest method possible. Adam had a vasectomy four years ago. And before you ask, hes the only man Ive been with, ever, so its impossible for me to be pregnant.

Still, Ill have some blood drawn and have them run a pregnancy test along with a few others just to be sure. Its highly improbable but there is a slim chance the tubes grew back together.

Jessie refused to believe it. Liz, weve been together for three years. Surely Id have gotten pregnant before now if thats what happened. No, Ive got a virus or stomach flu, thats all.

After the nurse had drawn a few vials of blood, Jessie dropped down onto a chair and waited for Liz to return with the results. Logic told her it wasnt possible to be carrying Adams child, but her heart ached for it to be true. Even though hed been very adamant about not having children before, things had changed between them. They were much closer than theyd ever been and he seemed happy at the ranch and with her. Maybe, just maybe hed change his mind about having a baby too. When Liz finally returned, Jessie was sitting primly in the chair, torn between fear and hope over what the tests revealed.

Liz pulled her chair over to Jessies. You look scared to death.

I am. Justtell me, Liz. Am I pregnant?

Yes, and based on when your last cycle was, Id say youre about three weeks along. A pelvic exam will be necessary and of course Ill need to get you on some pre-natal vitamins. Adam was right about you being anemic which, combined with the pregnancy, made you feel even more run down. I know this is unexpected and youre a little overwhelmed right now, but I have to ask. You arent considering terminating this pregnancy are you? I mean,

youve mentioned that Adam didnt want children but I want you to know there are other alternatives.

Jessie stared at her in horror. No! Id neverI just couldnt, not my own child! Liz, I love Adam with all my heart but theres nothing he could say or do that would make me get an abortion.

Even if he leaves you?

Jessie bit back the tears that hovered just behind her eyes. Even if he leaves me. I want this baby, and if Adam doesnt feel he can handle being a father then Ill raise our child on my own.

For your sake, and the babys, I hope he stays. Whatever happens, you know Ill be here for you.

I know that, thank you.

Well, Liz stood up, lets get the examination over with. Will you tell him right away?

Jessie rose wearily. No, I need time to think about it first. If he asks, just tell him about the anemia and that you gave me a prescription for it. How was it possible to be so happy and yet utterly miserable at the same time?

***

Mitch pulled the covers up to Jessies waist then sat down on the edge of the bed next to her. Youre sure its just anemia and a little bug? What about the dizziness?

I told you, I have a slight ear infection and it threw me balance off. Its nothing to worry about, I promise.

He wasnt entirely convinced, but Dr. Stewart had insisted it was nothing that a few days of bed rest wouldnt cure. You took the pills she gave you already?

In her office before I left. I showed you the lovely pill dispenser she gave me so I know what to take and when.

But she didnt give you a prescription, what happens when you run out

Would you stop worrying so much? Liz knows me too well. She was afraid I wouldnt get the prescription filled so she gave me enough to last until I see her again in two weeks.

Mitch stroked the side of her cheek, not at all happy with the pallor of her skin. I promised Hank Id help him out this afternoon, but if you need me to stay

Ill be fine. Im just going to stay in bed and get some sleep. I promise not to do anything more strenuous than pulling the covers up, okay?

Well be clear down by the barn, how will you reach me if you need me?

Hank has a pager, you know that. If I need you, Ill page. Now go on, youre wearing me out with all this worrying.

All right, Ill go, but Ill come back in a few hours to check on you. He leaned down and kissed her. Go to sleep.

Jessie smiled sleepily, waiting until hed closed the door to turn on her side and pull the covers up. Within minutes, she was sound asleep. It was late afternoon when she woke, still a good two hours before Adam would return from the barn to make dinner. The vision of him trying to put together a meal for all the men brought a smile to her face but she just didnt have the heart to let him do it on his own. Shed go downstairs in an hour and get things started so he wouldnt have so much to do after working all day. After a quick trip to the bathroom to relieve herself, Jessie crept to the closet and pulled out Adams journal. Settling on the bed, she began to read where shed left off.

Cali, Columbia, drug capital of the world, a country whose guerilla factions have almost as much power as the government Why in the hell do Americans come here when U.S. policy dictates we make no concessions and refuse to strike any deals with kidnappers? Arrogance, it has to be. Foolishly believing being a U.S. citizenship offers some sort of immunity, they rush in with their cameras and naivety and my men end up losing their lives to extract them from a country that resented them being there in the first place. This time it was Russell who paid the ultimate price. But I guess we all pay the price one way or another, dont we?

We all went our separate ways at the airport. Jim went home to his wife, but its just a battlefield of a different nature. Cane took off to visit his parents in Virginia. They think he

pushes paper for the government in New York City, and Ashwell, he doesnt tell and we dont ask. Mitch headed off to the mid-west to find yet another small town to hide out in and Im on my way back to Jessie. Scattered to the wind, busted and broken, we all run to the people or places that will heal our sorrow, our guilt. Its always the same, a never ending loop of success and loss, building us up, tearing us down.

Jess. In less than three hours Ill be back at the ranch, holding her, kissing her, losing myself in her beauty. She deserves so much more than what I can give her, yet she never complains. I know its selfish to ask her to wait, selfish to leave her alone for weeks at a time wondering if Im alive or dead, but I just cant seem to let her go. Im safe with Jessie. With the sweetness of her smile, the taste of her lips, the warmth of her heart, she makes me forget my weaknesses.

Jessie replaced the journal and grabbed a clean pair of jeans and t-shirt. Dressing quickly, she hurried downstairs to start dinner, all the while wondering how Adam could ever consider himself weak. How was it weak to hurt over the loss of a friend? She wondered if shed ever understand just what went on inside that complex mind of his. A sudden wave of nausea brought her back to an even bigger problem looming over her, over them. Downing a few soda crackers and a glass of water helped cure the most immediate issue of her pregnancy, but resolved nothing as far as how she intended to inform Adam he was about to be a father.

Oh God, she groaned, leaning against the counter, I cant lose him, I just cant. Not now when were so happy. Jessie pushed herself upright and started hauling out pots and pans. Keep busy and dont dwell on it. The answer will comeeventually.

There was plenty of time to figure it out, she assured herself. After all, she was only three weeks along and probably wouldnt even begin to show for a few more months. Surely by then she could convince Adam that having a baby would only complete their lives together. Maybe she should take him to some of the town picnics, let him get used to having other peoples children around so it wouldnt seem so foreign to him. There was always someone with a new baby. If she could just get him to hold one and see how wonderful it felt to have a baby in your arms, he might change his mind.

Damn it, Jessie, youre supposed to be upstairs resting!

Startled by the sound of Adams angry voice, Jessie jumped, knocking the pan of hot water with her arm as she whirled around. Boiling liquid sloshed over the side, sizzling and popping as it hit the burner. Still shaking, she righted the pan before turning to face Adam only to find him standing right behind her.

You promised youd rest, he said, his anger barely contained.

I did rest up until about an hour ago. I cant stay in bed all day and then expect to be able to sleep at night so I thought Id come downstairs and get a start on dinner.

Start dinner? He glanced at the stove. It looks like youve done the whole thing. I told youd Id take care of it and I will. Now get back upstairs and climb into bed before I pick you up and carry you there myself.

Emotionally unbalanced from her recent discovery and no doubt suffering from the effects of the pregnancy itself, Jessie burst into tears. I just wanted to help, she sobbed. Youve been sosweet, andand then you worked all dayand I

Mitch gathered her in his arms. Shhhh, its alright. Dont cry, honey, youre breaking my heart. Im sorry I yelled at you, Im just worried about you, thats all. He held her to him, chastising himself for sounding so harsh and making her cry. Im sorry, baby. I appreciate you wanting to help, honest I do, but you need to rest for a few days and let me handle things, okay?

Jessie nodded against his chest. Can I at least stay down here with you?

Only if you sit at the table and dont lift a finger, deal?

Okay, she sniffed.

Mitch drew away from her and gently wiped away the tears. The weak smile she gave him tore at his heart even worse than the tears had. Always so strong and willful she was, even now when hed scared her half to death and hurt her feelings she was putting up a brave front. But her eyes couldnt mask what she was feeling. Mitch reached behind her and turned down the burners then lifted her up into his arms. He carried her across the room, lowering himself down onto a chair with Jessie in his lap and simply held her for several minutes.

Youve always been the strong one, he said quietly. For years Ive leaned on you, depended on you to pull me out of the hell I went through on those damn missions. But its my turn to be strong now. I want to take care of you, Jess, can you understand that?

I think so. Im just not used to someone taking care of me. She looked up at him, her heart filled with so much love it was all she could do to keep from blurting out the words. Maybemaybe we could just agree to take care of each other. I mean, everyone needs someone to lean on sometimes, dont they? It doesnt mean theyre weak.

Mitch knew what she was getting at. It was Adam whod always felt insecure about showing his emotions. It left him vulnerable, made him feel weak. At least hed felt that way with everyone but Jessie. Mitch looked into her trusting eyes. It was easy to lose ones self in the depths of those beautiful blue eyes, easy to bear your soul because there would be no judgment, no accusation or placement of guilt. Only a quiet understanding, and love, and absolution.

Mitch drew in a slow breath. The men would be tromping into the house in less than thirty minutes, but he had to give her something; something that would tell her just how much trust he had in her. He smiled down at her, pressed a soft kiss to her lips, then pulled Jessie close to his chest, to his heart.

We lost a man on the last mission. He died saving me.

Oh, Adam, Im so sorry!

Mitch hugged her to him, his voice hoarse and raw. It was my brother, Jess. My brother gave his lifefor me.

***

Somehow they made it through dinner. Then shed comforted him in the only way she knew how, by making love to him. The first time had been slow, their touches soft, their kisses

tender. The second time he was fierce, demanding; a wounded animal unleashing his anguish in the warmth of her body. When it was over and she lay in his arms, he told her about the woman and how shed been fighting him even as he led her away from the terrorists. He never would have made it if his brother hadnt come back for them.

The woman tripped me up and we fell to the ground. I thought it was all over, for her and for me. And then I saw my brother, charging like a raging bull out of the woods, drawing the terrorists fire away from us. I picked her up and threw her over my shoulder, screaming for my brother to fall back, fall back. I didnt even know hed been hit until we made it back to camp.

Jessie was curled up by his side, tears gliding down the sides of her cheeks and onto his chest. Why didnt he tell you?

Because he knew wed stop and try to keep him from bleeding to death. The terrorists werent far behind so any delay in getting out of there could have cost more lives. Always playing the damn hero, Mitch said bitterly. His life was wasted for nothing.

Jessie rose up on one elbow, filled with anger and indignation at what hed said. Dont you dare belittle what your brother did! He didnt die for nothing; he died saving the one person who meant the most to him in the entire world. You. Would you have stayed behind those trees if it was him out there? Hell no, youd have rushed in without a second thought just the way he did. He wasnt playing the hero, he is a damn hero and dont you ever forget it!

Mitch pulled her back into his arms, pain washing over him in waves. He hadnt even realized hed been desecrating Adams memory until then. His brother had never feared death for himself, but hed tormented himself every time Mitch got hurt or narrowly escaped getting

killed. The truth of Jessies words struck at his heart; Adam had died without regret because hed kept his brother safe.

At last the burden of guilt was lifted, but in its place stood another harsh reality. Jessie thought it was him that died during that mission. That meant if he stayed with her, hed have to live the rest of his life out pretending he was Adam. And if he left as hed originally planned and sent word to her that Adam had died, hed never be able to return to her. To Jessie, both the Kincaid brothers would be dead. Mitch closed his eyes, breathing in the soft, sweet scent of her. He would be dead anyway if he left her. Maybe not physically, but inside, in his heart, there would be nothing left. Firm in the conviction that what he was doing was right, Mitch reached for the switch on the lamp.

Jessie squinted against the sudden light. Adam, whats wrong? Why

I have something to tell you, something I should have told you weeks ago.

Jessies insides trembled. This was it, the thing shed dreaded most since hed come back. Youyoure leaving me, arent you?

No, sweetheart, Im not leaving.

Then what?

Mitch turned on his side so he was facing her. I cant keep hiding the truth from you Jess, you mean too much to me. He drew her closer, even more certain that only good could come of what he was about to say; because it came straight from his heart, and because it was the truth. I love you, Jessie. Ive loved you from the first moment I laid eyes on you.

Chapter 8
Her tears confused him, as did the heart wrenching sobs. Jessie, honey, whats wrong? I thought What had he thought? God, had he been wrong about her loving Adam? I thought thats what you wanted me to say, he said miserably.

Thats just it, she wailed, you only said it because its what you think I want to hear. You dont really l-love me!

I do, Jess, I swear on my life I do.

No, you dont. You always let your guard down when we have these talks and youre even more vulnerable now because of the loss of your brother.

Youre right, I am feeling a bit vulnerable right now but it doesnt negate whats in my heart. Look at me, Jess. Look into my eyes and youll know that what Im saying is the Gods honest truth.

She tilted her head back and Mitch let her see it all. Everything he felt, everything he was because of her poured from his heart; the scorching heat of his desire, the raw emotions, the enormous love hed kept bottled up inside. They were laid out in front of her, reflected in his eyes, leaving him exposed and vulnerable. But not weak, he thought. His brother had been wrong about that. Giving your love took great courage; not because of what youre offering, but because of the gnawing fear it wont be returned. He waited for Jessie to say something, each moment she remained silent more agonizing than the last. Hope began to fade and he squeezed his eyes shut against the pain.

No, Jessie whispered, dont close your eyes. She touched his cheek. Say it again, Adam. Her fingers moved to cover his lips. Say it. And he did, just as hed done before, without any words.

Mitch watched the slow smile spread across her face and knew that shed finally accepted what he so longed to give her. It was worth it; giving up his name, his past, his friends. Hed have to explain to his parents and hoped theyd understand, but that would come later. For now, he was out of his mind with happiness. Jessie was his. He reached for the light, fully intending to consummate his vows of love, but Jessie stopped him.

WaitII have a confession to make. She took his hand and placed it over her heart. Its yours Adam, now and forever. I love you too. Maybe Ive always loved you, but I never really knew it until you came back to me this last time. Something changed between us. I cant describe it but sometimes it just seems so overwhelming I feel like Im going to burst. When I look at you now, I know youre the one I was meant to spend my life with, the only man I could ever truly love.

Joy filled his heart, and not just because she loved him too. His greatest fear was that in living his life as Adam, hed have to do it knowing Jessie would only love him for who she thought he was. But shed as much as admitted that what she was feeling now had only come to fruition after Mitch himself had shown up. In truth, whether she knew it or not, Jessie had fallen in love with him, not Adam.

He didnt bother turning out the light. This time when he made love to her, Mitch wanted to be able to see her face. He wanted to look into Jessies eyes and know that it was him she gave

herself to, that he was the one who made her happy. Bracing his arms on either side if her shoulders, Mitch slowly eased himself into the warmth of her body. He watched as her lips parted, heard the soft intake of breath as he began to move in and out of her. Her face lost its pallor as her skin became heated and flushed causing little beads of moisture to form along her forehead. Her breathing grew shallow and erratic as his hips drove into her harder and harder until at last she cried out, writhing beneath him, looking so incredibly beautiful Mitch couldnt tear his eyes away from her.

Jessie pulled him down to her, her lips seeking his with a wanton hunger that made his blood boil. A low groan of male satisfaction tore from his throat, his body convulsing uncontrollably as her tongue swirled around his, possessing him a way no woman had ever done before. His seed shot up inside of her, mixed with her own liquid heat, and he shuddered again and again and again. Never in his life had Mitch felt such completeness as he did at that moment.

Burying his face in her neck, he could only repeat over and over, I love you, Jess. I love you

***

Leaving strict orders with Jessie to remain in bed and not to do any cooking or housework of any sort, Mitch and Hank made a quick detour into town then set off for the Sinclair ranch. Hed gotten it into his head that buying out the Sinclairs would accomplish two things. First and foremost, it would at least temporarily block Wilkinson from cutting off the water supply to Jessies ranch as well as the two neighboring ranches to the north. He also

thought it would provide more capital with two working ranches, especially after Hank told him the potential the Sinclair ranch had.

Theyre older now, Hank told him, and their hearts arent really in it anymore. If you can get them to sell out at a decent price and work it right, that ranch would be more much more profitable than Jessies could ever hope to be.

Mitch had contacted his bank the day before and had a good chunk of his inheritance from Adam wire transferred to one of the local banks in town. Hank had somehow wheedled the amount Wilkinson offered the Sinclairs from one of Wilkinsons own ranch hands which gave them a decided edge, but Mitch had an ace in the hole he felt certain would cement the deal.

Becky Sinclair greeted them with a warm smile and ushered them into the kitchen where the smell of freshly baked cookies wafted through the air invitingly. Mitch could almost visualize the Sinclairs daughter sitting at the table with a glass of milk and a plate of cookies warm from the oven. He glanced around the homey kitchen and even as comfortable and welcoming as it was, it didnt come close to the feeling he got when walking into Jessies kitchen. Theyd never talked about having children and he was fairly certain the topic would have been nipped in the bud if shed spoken with Adam about it, but Mitch wanted kids, a whole slew of them. The image of Jessie growing heavy with his child lodged a boulder in his throat. It was something they were definitely going to discuss in the near future.

Becky pulled a fresh batch of cookies from the oven. Have a seat at the table, Tom will be along shortly. Would you like some cookies and milk? She literally beamed at them when

they nodded their heads eagerly. I always make too many. Im so used to Wendy and all her friends making off with half of them I forget to cut the recipe down.

Mitch didnt miss the sadness in Becky Sinclairs voice when she spoke of her daughter. It must be rough on you and your husband with your daughter so far away.

It just isnt the same. She was always such a vibrant young thing and Lord, there was always at least three or four other girls trailing after her. Its going to be even harder now.

She carried two plates full of cookies and set them in front of Hank and Mitch then went back for the milk. He could tell she was close to tears as she bustled around the kitchen with her lips pressed tightly together, carefully keeping her eyes averted. He hadnt met Tom Sinclair yet, but it didnt take a Rhode Scholar to figure out that his wife would jump at the opportunity to be near her daughter.

His sympathy was genuine; it was obviously very painful for the woman to be separated from her only child. What makes it more difficult now, Mrs. Sinclair?

She sat down across from Mitch. Becky, please. We just found out Wendy is going to have a baby and I know its silly but I want to be there for her. Im afraid we spoiled her rotten and I just think sheshe needs her mother.

Of course she does, Becky, Hank said, chomping down on his second cookie. And spoiled rotten doesnt do her justice. Youre lucky that rich lawyer husband of hers thinks the sun rises and sets on Wendy, thats for sure. Hank laughed when he caught the warning look

Mitch shot him. Oh, dont worry, son, Im not telling Becky anything she doesnt already know.

Becky laughed with him. Hes right, you know, which is why Im certain she needs me to help her through this. And shell need someone around to watch the baby when she has errands to run.

Shes got her heart set on moving to Florida, Tom Sinclair said as he joined them at the table.

Mitch stood up and held out his hand. Im Mitch Kincaid, I believe Hank spoke with you yesterday.

Tom nodded to Hank who was now deeply engrossed in dunking what was left of the cookies in his glass of milk. Ill be honest with you, Mitch, Ive already received a fair offer from Jud Wilkinson.

But you havent accepted, Mitch countered. I get the distinct feeling you werent just holding out for a better offer.

No, I wasnt, but I am curious as to how you gathered that.

Hed just been guessing, but now he knew for sure. Tom Sinclair didnt object to selling out, it was the idea of selling to Wilkinson that was holding him back. You have a nice ranch here and have obviously put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it. But I think it was being a family that kept you here more than anything and with Wendy gone, it just doesnt have the same appeal as it did before.

Tom nodded, a slight smile beginning to form. Go on.

I havent been around long enough to know what Wilkinsons capable of, but Hank tells me he wouldnt have any problem buying up this ranch and choking off the water supply to the three ranches to the south so he can swallow those up too.

Hanks right and so are you. Im just as anxious to move close to Wendy as my wife is, but I cantno, I wont sell out to Jud knowing what hes got planned for the other ranchers. I assume youre interested in buying me out, but how do I know for sure you wont do the same?

My only reason for wanting this property is to keep it out of Wilkinsons hands so he cant ruin the Buchanan ranch. Id also like to incorporate it into the Buchanan holdings.

Tom Sinclair exchanged glances with his wife. Im afraid we dont understand. You intend to give it to Jessie?

Mitch grinned. I guess word hasnt spread this far north. Im crazy about Jessie, and yes I intend to make a gift of it. If anything ever happens to me, I want to make sure shes financially secure. Beside him, Hank was bobbing his head up and down as if to assure the Sinclairs of Mitchs sincerity.

Well then, Mitch, I think Becky will agree that if you can match Juds offer, youve got yourself a ranch.

This was the moment Mitch had been waiting for. Im afraid I cant match it, Mr. Sinclair. All three sets of eyes turned to him. No, I dont think I cant match it, he said slowly, savoring the moment, but I do think I can top it.

There was an audible sigh of relief from Hank, but the Sinclairs seemed to be holding their breath in anticipation. Mitch pulled out two documents and laid them on the table then waited in silence while Tom and his wife examined the papers. When they were through, Becky was teary-eyed but obviously very happy and Tom had to clear his throat a few times before he spoke.

Im not sure why youre doing this, Mitch, but Becky and I are extremely grateful for the generous offer.

Hank looked at all of them as if theyd lost their minds. I dont suppose one of you would care to explain it to me since I seem to be the only one still left in the dark.

Mitch picked up one of the documents. This is an offer for the exact amount Wilkinson gave them plus one dollar. I didnt want him to be able to argue that hed made the offer first so it should have been accepted. By adding one dollar to the price, I have the highest offer. He plucked the other document off the table. This is a part of my past that now represents the Sinclairs future. Since we never knew where our next assignment would take us, my brother and I purchased a few condos. WeI now have one on the California coast, one near Kansas City, and one in Florida. This, he said, handing the document back to Tom, is the Deed to the condo in Miami Beach.

Becky clutched her husbands hand. Our Wendy lives just outside Miami Beach. You have no idea how happy youve made us.

I think I do.

I still dont understand, Tom said. Why are you doing this when we were fully prepared to accept the same amount Jud offered?

A couple of reasons, I guess. Ive decided to stay here permanently and putting down roots means I dont need the condos. Maybe its because Im so happy with Jessie that I jumped at the opportunity to pass that on to someone else. At any rate, the condo in Florida will mean much more to you than it ever did to me.

Tom stood up and shook Mitchs hand. Ill get started on the paperwork right away. Its going to take us some time to get packed up and decide what stays and what goes. How soon will you need us out of here?

Im only concerned with taking ownership right away and making sure Wilkinson knows it. You stay as long as you need to, Im in no hurry to take over.

Mitch was feeling rather proud of himself as they drove back to the ranch. Do you think Jessie will have any problem with me buying the Sinclair ranch?

Not as long as you tell her why you did it before she jumps to the conclusion youre moving there yourself.

Shes still afraid Im going to leave, isnt she?

She has no reason not to. She thinks youre Adam, remember?

***

I take it you havent told him yet, Liz Stewart said in a reproachful tone.

Jessie let out a little squeak of surprise when Liz poured the gooey gel on her abdomen. Im scared, she admitted.

Scared of what, that hell leave you?

Nomaybe, but thats not it. You said yourself it was extremely rare for the tubes to grow back together after a vasectomy. What if he doesnt believe its his baby?

Liz adjusted the controls on the ultra sound machine. Does he have any reason to think you could have been with anyone else?

No! Good lord, Adam is all any woman could handle.

That good, huh?

Jessie giggled. Beyond good, beyond fantastic, beyond anything in this world.

Liz shook her head, but there was a smile on her lips. You have it bad, kiddo. Id ask if he knows how much you love him but anyone with eyes could see that. Does he feel the same?

Yes, he does. Im so happy, Liz. If only I could tell him about the baby Jessies voice trailed off as the sound of the babys heartbeat filtered through the machines speakers. Is it supposed to beat that fast?

Yes, thats perfectly normal at five weeks. Your baby has a nice strong heartbeat and is developing just as he should be.

He?

Liz reached for a dry cloth to wipe the gel off Jessies abdomen. Just a figure of speech, its a little too early to tell. He or she is healthy. There shouldnt be any complications as long as you continue to take care of yourself. Or do I have Adam to thank for the return of your own good health?

Hes become very militant about my eating habits. He lets me do all the cooking, but wont let me go riding around the ranch on my own anymore and hes very adamant that I not over exert myself. I cant imagine how hed behave if he knew that I was pregnant. Assuming he didnt leave skid marks as he tore out of driveway, she thought dismally.

Liz peeled off the latex gloves shed worn and tossed them in the waste bin. Youll be showing soon. Dont you think it would be wiser to tell him before he figures it out himself?

Jessie sat up and pulled the gown over her knees. I will, soon, I promise.

Liz looked at her for a moment. Something else is bothering you, isnt it?

What makes you think that?

Look Jess, Ive known you since you were toddling around in training pants. Youve never balked at facing anything dead on regardless of how scared you were. So what is it thats really keeping you from telling Adam about the baby?

Im not sure, she said earnestly. Hes just so different now than he used to be. I know this sounds weird, but sometimes it seems like hes not really Adam, like hes somebody else entirely.

Liz arched a brow, obviously amused by what shed said. Invasion of the body snatchers, something like that?

Oh, I told you it sounds strange.

People do change, believe it or not. Maybe his brothers death affected him more than you know. Facing our own mortality can be a scary thing, Jess, and Adam got a lot closer than most. Isnt it possible he considered what he was giving up by not being with you and decided saving the world wasnt as important as saving your relationship?

As much as she wanted to believe it, she just couldnt. I can see the new Adam coming to that conclusion, but not the old one. You didnt know him, Liz. No one knew him like I did, not even his brother. Being a Special Ops agent meant more to him than breathing. The Adam I knew wouldnt have stopped because of his brothers death, it would only have given him a bigger reason to keep on rescuing people. He would have felt he owed it to Mitch to save more lives, to make up for the ones that were lost, you know?

Youre not telling him about the baby because he chose you over being a Special Ops agent?

No, its a lot of things. Hes so good to me, so kind and caring, and the way he looks at me sometimes just makes my knees go weak. Hes always helping out at the ranch and has even called a truce with Del. And a few weeks ago, he bought the Sinclair ranch so Jud couldnt get his hands on it. But he didnt just match Juds offer, he actually threw in a condo in Miami Beach so Tom and Becky could be near Wendy. And I mean, literally. He actually gave it to them.

Oh my God, Liz feigned a look of horror. How could you even live with a monster like that?

Jessie let out a heavy sigh. Dont you think I know what it sounds like? Were perfect together, Liz. We hardly ever argue and if we do, its over practically before it starts. The dark moods that used to come and go, the restlessness, it doesnt exist anymore.

And thats a bad thing?

No, but its not Adam.

You know what I think? I think you should thank your lucky stars that all the changes have been good ones and stop using it as an excuse not to tell him.

Okay, okay, Ill tell him.

When, Jessie?

Soon.

***

I know Jessie wants to have kids someday. Ultimately, I suppose thats what will force me to leave her. She should have children, shed be a great mother, and sometimes when I look at her I almost wish I could father those children. Almost. But in my heart I know I wouldnt be there for her or for them. I was honest with her and shes accepted that there can never be anything more than what there is now. I thank God for giving me a woman who can understand that it would be more selfish of me to offer marriage and a family knowing from the beginning it was doomed to failure, rather than to offer only myself. For now its enough for her, but I cant help the fear that grips me sometimes that one day it wont be.

He was afraid I would be the one to end it?

Jessie reread the last sentence in Adams journal. So he had the same fears she did about the relationship ending abruptly. Still, he would have walked away if shed issued any ultimatums. He couldnt give up being an agent and therefore, wouldnt offer her marriage. And giving her a child wasnt possible, or so he thought, so Adam had resigned himself to the fact that eventually it had to end. He just didnt want to be the one to do it. So what had changed his mind about committing to her? And was that decision based on him believing there would never be any children involved?

Another week had passed since shed seen Liz and still she couldnt bring herself to tell Adam she was pregnant. So far, hed swallowed the story about being anemic and that the pills

she took were to treat it. It was only a matter of weeks before her body would begin to show the tell-tale signs of pregnancy and she knew she should stop stalling but the entries in Adams journal about not wanting children kept holding her back. Even if he did believe the baby was his, he wouldnt welcome the news and what then? She wasnt strong enough to handle him leaving her, she knew it with undying certainty. Maybe she could have dealt with it before shed fallen in love with him, but not now.

It was driving her crazy and Jessie was at a loss as to what to do. Shed been taking every opportunity she could to read his journal, hoping to find something, anything, that would tell her what had triggered the change in Adam. Though the compulsion to simply go to the last few entries was strong, Jessie resisted reading them. She truly wanted to understand what led up to his decision to give up being a Special Ops agent and settle down with her. So she continued to read it in sequence any time she knew Adam would be gone for a few hours, but so far she hadnt discovered anything. No clues, no great revelations, nothing.

Discouraged at having found nothing more than yet another confirmation that Adam didnt want children, Jessie was about to return the journal to his duffle bag when she decided to read a few more pages. Adam had gone into town with Hank and even if they got home earlier than expected, shed hear his truck and be able to replace the journal long before he even got to the house. Settling back on the bed, she flipped to the next page. There was nothing really remarkable, nothing that hollered out to her that shed finally found something to work with. Yet when she finished the few pages hed written about one of the missions, she got the unsettling feeling shed missed something.

The men were all in high spirits tonight over the success of our latest mission. In spite of Canes minor injuries and the fact that I got clipped and had to get a few stitches, we all went out to celebrate. Tomorrow well all be sporting hangovers and swearing on our lives that well never touch alcohol again, but tonight we drink and give thanks that everyone is here to toast to the victory.

Jessie stared at the date trying to recall which particular scar hed come home with that time. It was just before Christmas two years ago so that meant it had to be the one onhis right side. She remembered now because hed still had the stitches in and theyd had to be careful not to break them open. No easy feat considering how ardent Adam always was when making love, especially during the first few days after his arrival. It left a two inch scar and because theyd had to patch him in the field it hadnt healed properly. The skin was raised where the stitches had once been so even in the dark shed always been able to locate the exact spot.

Jessie stood up slowly, a cold chill winding its way through her body. There were dozens of scars on Adams body, some more obvious than others. Most of them were merely thin white lines, but a few had caused small indentations or were slightly raised like the one his side. She knew them all, had intimately caressed each one with her fingertips, kissed them, ran her tongue over them. The man shed been sleeping with for three years had a bullet wound on the back of his left thigh. He also had a raised scar under his right bicep and the one on his side from the mission shed just read about. But the man whod come home to her, the one shed fallen in love with and whose child was now growing in her bellythat man didnt have any of those scars.

Chapter 9
Her movements were mechanical as she walked to the closest and put the journal back. There had to be some logical explanation, plastic surgery maybe. But she knew Adam would never have done anything to cover the scars. He was proud of them and wore his battle wounds like they were badges of honor. She recalled what Liz had said in jest about the body snatchers and a shiver ran up her spine. It was inconceivable to think he was anyone but Adam and yet she knew, perhaps had always known on some level, that he wasnt.

Jessie was shaking as she moved deeper into the closet and pulled down a shoebox. Taking it back to the bed, she lifted the lid and sifted through the photographs. Adam rarely let anyone take pictures of him but last summer shed coaxed him into letting Hank take one with them together. She held it under the light, studying the handsome face she knew so well. The dark hair and eyes were the same, the lips that had kissed her so tenderly just that morning were identical. The strong jaw line and breathtaking smile hadnt changed. She pulled the picture closer, and thats when she saw it.

Jessie dropped the picture back into the box and clamped her hand over her mouth. The mad dash to the bathroom and the next several minutes spent hovered over the toilet bowl throwing up her lunch were nothing but a hazy blur. Stumbling back into her room, she shoved the box aside and climbed onto the bed, curling herself into a tight ball. How had she not noticed that small little crook in his nose was all wrong? It should have been a half an inch higher and just slightly to the left, not on the right as it was withthe man shed been sleeping with for the past month and a half.

Who was he, and how was it possible he looked so much like Adam? His walk was the same, his voice, his laugh. But not the way he made love to her, she conceded. Good God, was she so desperate for someone to love her that shed deliberately put on blinders? The answer had been there the entire time, all the little inconsistencies shed told Liz about that should have led her to the conclusion shed just drawn. But if he wasnt Adam, then who was he and what did he have to gain by coming here and pretending he was?

She tried to make some sense of it, but her head felt as if it was stuffed with cotton wool. It was quite some time before another unnerving thought began to form. If he really was an imposter, then where was the real Adam? Jessie sat up. All those weeks that shed laid awake at night certain that something bad had happened to him now seemed like some sort of premonition. Had he been killed during that last mission? And what about his brother, Mitch? This man, whoever he was, told her Mitch had been killed but maybe theyd both died. Or maybe

Jessie drew in a shallow breath. Maybe Adam was the one whod died, not Mitch. And it was Mitch who was now masquerading as his brother. That had to be it. They looked so much alike they could have been twins. For all she knew, they were twins. Was Mitch so torn up by his brothers death that hed decided to keep him alive by taking his place? And Adam, oh God, her Adam was dead. Jessie wrapped her arms around herself, rocking slowly back and forth. Tears rolled down her cheeks in a steady stream, the pain in her chest so enormous she was numbed by it.

She grieved for the man shed known and loved for the last three years, the man whod brought both happiness and sorrow, and whod trusted her to make everything right. But she couldnt make it right this time. Shed never be able to hold him and ease his pain again. Shed always known her relationship with Adam wasnt permanent, but she never thought it would end like this. Shed always thought their parting would be sad but amicable and that somehow theyd remain friends.

Jessie lay back down and buried her face in the pillow, sobbing uncontrollably until her sides ached with it and her throat was so dry she could barely swallow. Then just as she thought she had herself under control, the tears started up again, but this time they werent for Adam. Poor Mitch had also suffered this enormous loss and now she understood why he still had that haunted look in his eyes sometimes. Hed been broken, just as Adam always was when he came to her, and he needed her to help him through it.

Jessies pain doubled, hurting not just for herself but also for Mitch. Was pretending to be Adam his way of keeping his brother alive or was it merely a way to lose himself so he could cope with the grief? It didnt matter, not really. The point was he needed help to get through it so he could reclaim his own identity. But she certainly wasnt capable of the kind of treatment he needed. His mind had snapped, taken away his perception of reality, and he needed professional help for that. What was she going to do? If she confronted Mitch and told him she knew he wasnt Adam, would that cause even more damage to his confused mind?

And there was the baby to think of. She knew Adam never wanted children, but she didnt have a clue how Mitch felt about it. Oh, why was she even thinking about whether he wanted kids or not? Jessie stared up at the ceiling. Because she loved him, thats why. Because

she couldnt let go of the dream she had of raising their child together. Deep down inside she knew shed fallen in love with Mitch because of the man he was not because shed believed he was Adam. For all the years she and Adam had shared, shed never felt so deeply, as if it was rooted in the very marrow of her bones.

So where did that leave her? She had no idea. Shed lost Adam, and shed mourn that loss forever, but she couldnt let it destroy the love shed found with Mitch. As strange as it seemed, Jessie felt Adam would have wanted it that way. Her hand moved absently over her belly and she thought he would have been happy about the baby too. If only it hadnt taken Adams death to bring her and Mitch together. Sadly, she recognized it was probably the only thing that ever would have.

***

What do you mean you cant tell her now?

I cant, Hank. Last night I told Jessie I loved her.

And?

And she said she loves me too. She loves me, Hank. Me, not Adam. If I tell her now, I might lose her.

And if you dont tell her, youll have to spend the rest of your life pretending to be your brother.

I dont care, Mitch said. Its just a name. She loves me and thats all that matters.

Hank shook his head. You havent thought this through, son. I imagine somewhere down the line youll want to get married and start a family, what then? Are you going to have your name legally changed so it says Adam Kincaid on the marriage certificate?

Maybe I will, Mitch said stubbornly.

Is that so? Well heres one for you. How are you going to feel when Jessie gives you a son or daughter and your brother is listed as the father?

Mitch stared out the windshield. Hank was right, he hadnt thought it through. He wanted Jessie to be Mrs. Mitch Kincaid and he wanted his children to know who he really was too. And Adam deserved to be remembered for the man he was, to be honored for the things hed done. How he could he tell his children stories of his brother and how brave hed been if he had to insert his own name every time? He was bound to slip up eventually and then it would be even harder to justify his reasons for doing it. And there was his parents and sister to consider. They might play along for a little while, but theyd never agree to do it on a permanent basis, and they were even more likely to slip up than he was.

Mitch pulled up to the house and cut the engine. He stared out the windshield, angry with himself for not telling her right from the start. Do you think Jessie would have fallen in love with me if shed known who I was from the beginning?

It would have progressed a little slower, but yes, I know she would have.

What makes you so sure?

If youd ever seen her with Adam, youd know the answer to that. Oh, they were good together, Im not going to lie to you about that, but she never looked at him the way she looks at you. You can see it in her eyes, in her smile, even when youre not around. She loves you, Mitch, and you need to put some faith in that love. No doubt shell be hurt at first, but shell forgive you and then you can start over with a good solid foundation and build from there.

Mitch nodded thoughtfully. You want to know something, Hank? Ive been on missions where every second of it was spent with my life hanging in the balance. Ive been shot it, stabbed a time or two, even had to dodge grenades before, but none of that scared me as much as the thought of losing Jessie.

Hank chuckled. I guess thats how you know its true love, son. Nothing can make a mans insides shake like the fear of losing the woman he loves.

Then its definitely true love.

So youll tell her?

Yes, but Ill have to figure out how Im going to say it first. Its not like I can just blurt it out Mitchs voice trailed off. Hed been staring at the house but not really seeing it. Jessie didnt say she was going anywhere today, did she?

No, why? Hank turned to look at the house, the lines in his forehead deepening. No lights. Even if she went into town, she would have made sure she was back in time to fix dinner.

Mitch was already half way out the door. Somethings wrong. He all but ran to the porch and yanked the door open, calling out for Jessie as his hand batted at the light switch. Ill check upstairs, he called over his shoulder.

His heart thundered in his chest, imagining all sorts of horrible scenarios. Shed fallen off a step ladder, slipped in the shower, had another one of her dizzy spells and hit her head. Why hadnt he thought to call her while he was out or have one of the boys check on her? It would be his fault if shed hurt herself. Barreling up the stairs, Mitch hollered out her name again but there was no response. His stomach was in knots by the time he reached the bedroom and flipped on the light.

Relief flooded over him when he found her curled up on the bed, fast asleep. Silently, he made his way to the bed and sat down on the edge. He brushed her hair away from her face, worried by how exhausted she looked. Mitch leaned closer, noting with a frown that her eyes were red and swollen. Shed obviously been crying and by the looks of it, shed cried for quite some time. Gently, he reached out and stroked her cheek.

Jess, wake up, honey. Slowly her eyelids fluttered opened. Are you feeling okay? You were sleeping so soundly Mitch was almost knocked off the bed when Jessie bolted up and launched herself at him. She threw her arms around his neck, clinging to him as if shed never let go. Jess, whats wrong? Youre shaking like leaf and youve been crying.

Jessie squeezed her eyes shut. I had a horrible dream, she squeaked out. I kept calling and calling for you but I couldnt find you and I thought youd left me and then I got worried that something bad had happened to you

Easy, sweetheart, Im right here. He held her for a moment, lightly stroking her back and pressing soft kisses to her temple until she finally stopped shaking. He drew back just far enough so he could see her face. Now tell me why youve been crying. Jessie stared at him for a moment, her troubled eyes giving rise to an unreasonable fear. But before she could answer him, Hank came bounding into the room.

You could have told me you found her, he snapped at Mitch. His expression softened when he looked at Jessie. Whats wrong, honey, are you feeling sick again?

She managed a weak smile. Im fine, really. I just had a bad dream, thats all.

Like hell, thats all, Hank snorted. Youve been crying and you were sleeping so hard you didnt hear either of us when we hollered for you.

Mitch turned back to Jessie. Well?

She stared at his chest, unable to meet his eyes. I dont know. I was feeling a little blue andand I just started crying. I guess I must have fallen asleep. Im sorry, I didnt mean to worry you. Mitch gave her a sympathetic hug, but Hank wasnt buying it.

You never were a very good liar. He nodded to Mitch. You work on getting it out of her while I go figure out what to make for dinner.

Oh, no, Jessie cried, is it really that late? She tried to stand up, but Mitch put his hands on her shoulders and gently, but firmly held her in place. I have to get dinner started. The boys

Will be just fine with whatever Hank makes them, he finished for her. Go on, Hank, Ill be down to help you as soon as I get a confession out of Jessie.

Hell probably make hotdogs and throw a bag of chips on the table, Jessie grumbled after Hank had gone.

Theyll survive. Now tell me whats really bothering you?

I told you already, I was just feeling a little down.

Sweetheart, youre eyes are red and swollen from crying so hard. Please, Jess, tell me whats wrong.

What could she say that hed believe? She couldnt very well tell him she knew he wasnt Adam or that shed been grieving over Adams death. If it wasnt for Hank, he might have fallen for her story about feeling blue for no reason, but not now. So she said the only thing she was certain would keep him from asking any more questions.

I always get emotional just before my period, she blurted out.

Mitch blinked. How the hell did he respond to something like that? I, uh, okay wellare you okay now?

I just needed a good cry, but Im fine, she assured him.

Good, thats good. He patted her shoulder awkwardly. Im going to give Hank a hand with dinner. You justrest.

Dont be silly. I told you Im fine and am perfectly capable of getting dinner on the table. She crawled off the bed then took his hands and pulled him to his feet. You and Hank can grab a glass of tea and relax until its time to eat.

Are you sure?

Positive. Now give me a kiss, Ive got work to do.

Mitch pulled her into his arms, more than happy to exchange the uncomfortable conversation with an amorous kiss. When he finally released her, she was wearing a soft smile but he couldnt seem to shake the feeling there was still something else bothering her. Whatever it was, he decided it would have to wait until later when they were alone because she obviously wasnt ready to talk about it now.

Having been shooed from the kitchen, he and Hank poured a couple of glasses of iced tea and wandered out onto the porch. He was still trying to keep from laughing at having discovered the old man standing over the stove just seconds away from plopping hot dogs into a bowling pot. Mitch propped himself against a pillar, sipping his tea while Hank settled down on the porch swing.

What did she say?

Its a female thing, he muttered.

Thats it? Thats all you got out of her?

What was I supposed to say? Gee, honey, hope your hormones settle down soon?

It isnt her hormones and it sure as hell isnt her time of the month.

Mitch almost choked on his tea. Now how on earth would you know that?

Because Jessie doesnt get all teary-eyed and sensitive when its her time. She gets down right mean for a few days and we all slink around like cowards for fear shell take a pick axe to us.

Youre exaggerating. Jessie doesnt have a mean bone in her body.

Not normally, but for a few days a month we post a sentry outside the bunkhouse in case she tries to kill one of us in our sleep. Hank scowled when Mitch howled with laughter. You wont think its so funny when she comes after you with the devil in her eyes. Even Adam had the sense to be sugar sweet to her during that time.

Mitch dabbed at his eyes, attempting to maintain his composure. Ill keep that under good advisement, old man.

You do that, and in the meantime you can pry the real reason she was crying out of her.

I wasnt a hundred percent convinced by her story either but I thought Id wait until we were alone to talk to her.

Hank agreed it was best, and for the better part of the next hour they talked about the Sinclair ranch and what improvements would need to be made in order to get it operating to its full potential. At the moment, Tom Sinclair was still running everything and would continue to do so until they moved, which was probably a good month or so away. Mitch wasnt really

interested in being on hand to run the place himself but figured by hiring the right men to work it for him, he wouldnt have to do more than check in once in a while. They were still discussing how many head of cattle the land could handle when the rest of the men came up from the bunkhouse.

Mitch shouldnt have been surprised to find the table set and supper waiting to be served as they filed into the kitchen, but it still amazed him at how effortlessly Jessie got things accomplished. Once they sat down and he got a closer look at her, he realized just how much it had taken out of her. Every movement she made seemed sluggish, as if all her energy was spent and she was simply running on autopilot. He jumped to his feet and helped her finish carry the last of the food to the table then ordered her to sit. She offered him a grateful smile as she dropped down into the chair beside him.

He gave her a stern look, one that told her he would take no arguments. After dinner I want you to go upstairs, take a nice long shower and crawl into bed. Ill get one of the men to help me clean up then Ill join you.

I just slept half the day away, but I wont fight you cleaning up or taking a long, hot shower.

Kenny, whod taken the seat on the other side of her, looked up when he heard what she said. Are you getting sick again?

Jessie groaned when the other men stopped talking and waited with anxious faces for her reply. Im fine, she insisted. Im just feeling a little run down so you can all stop looking at me like that.

You should have called down to the bunkhouse, Stu chastised lightly. We would have been happy to make our own dinner.

Terry, the youngest of the lot, chimed in with, You dont look so good, Jessie. Are you sure youre not getting sick again?

Oh for Heavens sake, Im tired, not dying!

You have no color and theres dark circles under your eyes, Del added his worried frown to the others.

Mitch covered her hand with his. Maybe I should take you to see Dr. Stewart tomorrow.

I dont need a doctor, she snapped.

Be reasonable, Jess. Youre tired and run down, you still have dizzy spells now and then, and youre appetite is practically non-existent.

Hes right, Hank said. Go see Doc Stewart and have her check you over.

Jessie sighed in exasperation. Theres nothing wrong with me that a little extra sleep wont cure.

You slept all afternoon and you still look like hell, Mitch pointed out. Im taking you to see Dr. Stewart and thats final.

When the other men started in on her again, Jessies temper got the best of her. Stop badgering me, she growled. Im a big girl, I can take care of myself. Im not sick and I dont need any of you bullying me into wasting Lizs time.

Mitch arched a brow. If you were taking good care of yourself, you wouldnt look like death warmed over right now.

Jessie stood up so fast her chair went sailing out behind her. Furious at all the men for hounding her and even more furious at Mitch for being so pushy and telling her she looked like hell, Jessie completely lost it.

I am not sick, she gritted out between clenched teeth.

Mitch rose to his feet, towering over her. You are sick. Youre just too stubborn and mule-headed to admit it.

Jessies chin jutted up. Did he really think that macho man routine would intimidate her? She leaned towards him, jabbing her finger into his chest. I am not stubborn or muleheaded, and for the last time I am not sick!

Mitch grabbed her hand on the third sharp jab. Look at the way youre behaving. Doesnt that tell you theres something wrong with you? Youve been dragging your heels for weeks and even right now you look like youre ready to drop.

Jessie wrestled her hand free. Her head was starting to throb and she was tired and cranky and hungry. Irrationally, she blamed it on Mitch. What would you know? What would any of you know? You have no idea what this does to your body! Of course Im tired, she ranted, I

havent been able to hold down a decent meal in weeks. You try existing off of toast and soda crackers and see how much energy you have. Her anger picking up steam, she lashed out at Mitch. And if I look like hell, its all your fault!

Mitchs eyes widened. My fault? How on Gods green earth did you come to that conclusion?

Because you did this to me!

Did what? Jessie, what are you talking about?

Im pregnant! She shouted. Now will you all just leave me alone?

Dead silence followed her emotional outbreak.

Chapter 10
They all just sat there mutely, their eyes moving from Jessie to Mitch and back again. The anger that only moments ago had her ranting and raving like a lunatic evaporated into thin air leaving her drained and more scared than shed ever been in her life. What had she done? Panic welled up inside her. Why was he just standing there not saying anything? Jessie opened her mouth then closed it again. There was nothing she could say to soften the blow shed just dealt. All she could do was wait for his response.

Mitch swayed unsteadily on his feet as her words began to sink in and when he was finally able speak, his voice was nothing more than a hoarse croak. Youre pregnant?

Im sorry, she grimaced, I didnt mean to tell you like this.

Mitch braced one hand on the back of his chair to steady himself. Youre pregnant?

Jessies eyes welled with tears. His face had drained of all color and he was looking past her, staring blankly at the wall behind her. She thought she was prepared for this, but in the back of her mind shed held out hope that hed be happy about it. Instead, he looked as if hed just been sucker punched. In a way, she supposed he had. She peered up at him anxiously, conscious of the fact none of the other men had moved a muscle and were probably all staring at her with the same vacant look in their eyes.

Itit was an accident, she stammered. I never meant for it to happen. You have to believe me, I wasnt trying to trap you or

Youre pregnant, he said again, but this time his voice was jubilant. Mitch grabbed her up in his arms, surprising her with a long hard kiss. A baby! My God He crushed her to his chest then abruptly let her go and whirled around to face the men. Did you hear that? Im going to be a father, he said proudly. As the reality of it hit him, his knees began to buckle and the room started to spin.

Youd better sit down before you pass out, Hank chuckled.

Mitch braced himself against the table, drawing in huge gulps of air as the men exploded in light-hearted laughter. There was a soft rustle of movement behind him, then Jessies hand timidly touched his arm. He turned around and gathered her back in his arms, his heart so full he thought it would burst.

Pressing his cheek to hers, he murmured, Youve made me the happiest man in the world.

Youre not just saying that? You really are happy about it?

Happy doesnt even begin to cover how I feel.

Behind them, Hank cleared his throat. The rest of us are trying to eat here so maybe you could save all that lovey-dovey stuff until later.

Get used to it, old man, Mitch shot back at him.

A soft blush colored Jessies cheeks. Maybe we should eat dinner before it gets cold.

Yes, of course, you must be starved and now you have the baby to think about too. He ushered her to her seat and took it upon himself to add more food to her plate.

Im eating for two, not an army, she grumbled.

How far along are you, Jess? Kenny asked.

A little over six weeks.

Mitch gaped at her. Six weeks? How long have you known?

Jessie smiled guiltily. When you took me to see Liz three weeks ago she ran a pregnancy test.

Youve known for three weeks and you didnt tell me?

Go easy on her, Hank came to her defense. Sometimes its just hard to find the right words when you have something important to tell.

The point was well taken. Im sorry, honey. Im just glad you finally told me.

Jessie laughed. I didnt exactly tell you, shouted is more like it.

Well, I was being a bit of bully, he admitted.

Yes you were but I forgive you.

The rest of the mealtime was filled with light banter and laughter and Jessie was beside herself at how easily theyd all taken the news of the baby in stride. The whole lot of them was

extremely over-protective of her so shed been a little worried theyd look at Mitch as some sort of fiend for getting her pregnant. To her amazement, their reaction was quite the opposite. While the boys cleared the table and washed up the dishes, Mitch fetched her a cup of coffee then hovered over her, his chest swelling with pride every time one of them congratulated him. Even Del kissed her on the cheek before he left and told her how happy he was for her. Only after the kitchen was put back in order and theyd all gone back to the bunkhouse was she allowed to leave her seat at the table.

Im very proud of you, Mitch said as he pulled her into his arms. You didnt grumble once about letting everyone else help clean up and you ate almost everything on your plate.

I was too tired to argue and for once I didnt feel queasy after only a few bites. I just hope you dont try to get me to eat that much at every meal or youll have to roll me to the hospital when its time.

Again Mitch felt a little weak kneed. I cant believe were actually going to have a baby. How did it happen? He chuckled when she arched a brow. I dont mean it that way. I thought birth control pills were like ninety-nine point nine percent effective.

Jessie didnt bat an eye. I missed one, she lied. Im sorry I didnt tell you. I guess I thought missing one pill wasnt that big of a deal.

Im glad you missed it, he said softly. I would have preferred to be married first but

Jessies heart leapt to her throat. Married?

Wellyes. I think we should be married as soon as possible, dont you?

She pulled away from him. No, I dont. Shocked by her own response, Jessie floundered for an explanation. I dont want to get married just because Im pregnant.

But I want to marry you, Jess.

No you dont, she said, outwardly the epitome of calm. Inside, her heart was silently breaking. If you wanted to marry me youd have asked me before now.

Mitch went to her, settling his hands gently on her slim shoulders. Sweetheart, you have no idea how many times Ive thought of it. Marry me, Jessie. I love you, I need you, I want to spend the rest of my life with you.

It took every ounce of strength she had not to throw herself in his arms and say yes. But she couldnt, not until he came to grips with Adams death and confessed his true identity to her. Somehow shed get through to him and make him see it was okay to let his brother go and get on with his own life. She shared his anguish but there were too many years ahead of them and Adam wouldnt have wanted either of them to mourn him forever. Reaching up, Jessie cupped his face in her hands.

I love you with all my heart, but I cant marry you right now.

Hurt and disappointed by her rejection of his proposal, Mitch struggled to keep from lashing out at her. He tried to keep in mind that it was Adam whod made her feel insecure and that she still didnt trust him not to walk out on her. But he couldnt help feeling resentful after

working so hard to assure Jessie just how much she meant to him and that he wasnt going to pick up and leave. He gripped her hands in his own, kissing each soft palm before leaning forward to capture her lips.

I wont give up, he warned, propelling her out of the kitchen and up the stairs to the bedroom. Ill keep asking until I drive you crazy and youll be forced to say yes just to shut me up. When they reached the bed, he pulled her up tight against his body. I love you, Jessie, more anything in the world and I am going to marry you.

She started unbuttoning his shirt, a soft smile curving her lips. I never said I wouldnt marry you, Kincaid. I said I wouldnt marry you right now.

It wasnt a yes, but it wasnt a no either and it gave him hope. He kissed her cheek, sliding his lips slowly down the delicate line of her jaw. Mark my words, he whispered, working his way to her lips, well be married before the baby is born.

Jessie sank into him, losing herself in the seduction of his mouth, his hands, the pressure of his hard, muscular body against hers. Her love for him was boundless, timeless and she was certain the strength of that love would eventually set things right. She wouldnt give up either, not ever. And shed marry him all right, but when the minister pronounced them husband and wife, shed walk away as Mrs. Mitch Kincaid.

***

Sitting on the porch swing enjoying the warmth of the early summer breeze, Jessie marveled at the changes in her body in the four short weeks after revealing her pregnancy to

Mitch. Her breasts, which had been ample enough before, were already becoming fuller and more sensitive to the touch. Not that she or Mitch minded. Her belly now had a decided little bulge and her normally slim hips were starting to round out. Mitch delighted in the new curves and spent a great deal of time each night trying to discover any subtle changes he might have missed the night before. An impossibility really, considering how thorough he was in his search.

She was impatient for him to return home because she had some exciting news to tell him and couldnt wait to see his reaction. Shed gone into town to have a routine check up and though hed insisted on going with her, shed convinced him to stay behind to help Hank repair a piece of fence that had come down during the last storm. Normally, she would have welcomed his company, but she and Liz planned on going to lunch afterwards so shed asked him to let her go alone. She moved her hand over her belly, secure in the knowledge that the pregnancy was progressing as it should be.

Jessie lifted her head at the sound of an approaching vehicle then rose to her feet, curious as to who would be paying a visit this late in the afternoon. She wasnt expecting any deliveries and all the ranch hands as well as Mitch and Hank had ridden out on horseback. Shading her eyes, she peered down the road as the vehicle drew nearer then let out an exasperated sigh when she realized who it was. There was only one person she knew of who had a white three quarter ton pickup with a pair of Texas Long Horns mounted on the hood.

Jud Wilkerson pulled up in front of the house and emerged from the truck with a fist full of flowers. You look as beautiful as ever, he declared when he joined her on the porch and handed over the fragrant bouquet.

Jessie set the flowers on the porch swing without even looking at them. I thought I made myself clear on the last visit, Jud. Im not selling the ranch to you or anyone else.

I know, I know. This has nothing to do with the ranch. Theres a barn dance at the Nelsons on Saturday night. I came to ask if youd do me the honor of being my date.

Apparently he hadnt heard about Mitch buying up the Sinclair ranch or about the baby. Adams back. And even if he wasnt, I wouldnt be interested in going out with you.

Youre killing my ego, you know that?

In spite of her irritation at his persistence, she couldnt help but smile. Im sure your ego will survive.

Not one to beat around the bush, Jud asked, How long is he staying this time?

Her chin jutted forward. For good.

Is that what he told you?

Yes.

And you believe him?

She didnt like the mocking tone of his voice. She didnt particularly like Jud either. Yes, I do.

He stepped a little closer. Youre a smart woman, Jess. Surely you dont believe that a danger junkie like Adam Kincaid will stick around forever.

No, Adam wouldnt have, she thought, but Mitch will. Whether he sticks around or not is none of your business. My ranch and what goes on in my life are none of your business either and Id appreciate it if you removed yourself from both of them.

A slow, lazy grin slanted his lips. Come on, Jessie, havent we played cat and mouse long enough? You cant possibly want a man who disappears on you for months at a time. I could give you everything youd ever dreamed of; an elegant home, fine clothes, a new car. He inched closer until he was half an arms length away. Wed be good together between the sheets, he said huskily. I imagine youre quite the wild cat in bed.

Jessie cheeks flushed, but not from desire. She was infuriated by his arrogance, not to mention the utter audacity of coming here and propositioning her especially when he knew Mitch was back. No, she shook her head, she had to remember everyone else believed he was Adam. She looked up at him, her whole body shaking with rage.

That is something you will never find out, Jud Wilkinson. Unless, of course, you intend to ask Adam. His smile faded. A slap to the face couldnt have been more effective. In case youre not getting the big picture, I love him. As a matter of fact, he asked me to marry him.

Jud laughed, but it was bitter and cold. Youre truly delusional if you think Kincaid will ever marry you. Hes not the marrying kind and we both know youre only setting yourself up for heartache. Just tell me this, Jess, what has he got that I dont?

Me, she answered simply.

Fire blazed behind his eyes as his hands shot out and gripped her arms. I have half a mind to take you inside and show you what a real man is like! I guarantee, one hour with me and youll forget Adam Kincaid ever existed.

Jessie smiled serenely. Really, an hour you say? It didnt take two minutes with Adam to make me forget there was any other man on earth. His eyes turned to ice and a small thread of fear began to wind its way through her when his grip tightened. She shoved against his chest, Youre hurting me

A low growl of rage sounded from behind Jud a split second before he was physically yanked away from her and thrown halfway across the porch. Jessie cringed when Jud hit one of the pillars with a loud thud then staggered sideways before catching himself. Terrified the two men were going to tear each other apart when Mitch took a menacing step towards Jud, she scurried across the porch and grabbed Mitchs arm.

Its okay, Jud was just leaving.

Mitchs jaw flexed. Damn right hes leaving. Ignoring Jessies frantic tug on his arm, he took another step forward, his voice as lethal as the stance he took against Jud. If you ever lay a hand on Jessie again, Ill kill you.

There was just the slightest flicker in Juds eyes before he squared his shoulders. You think Im intimidated just because youre some hot shot Special Ops agent? Im not afraid of you, Kincaid, or your idle threats.

Mitch glared at him. Try touching her again and youll see just how idle my threats are.

Jud grinned, his eyes moving to Jessie, traveling slowly down her body and back up again. When youre ready for a real man

Thats as far as he got before Mitchs fist slammed into his jaw. Jud went down like a lead balloon, but his half conscious state didnt stop the rage that burned inside Mitch. He wanted to kill him with his bare hands for the way hed looked at Jessie and might have done just that if she hadnt thrown herself at him and hugged her slender body to his.

Dont, she choked.

He wound his arms around her, alarmed at how violently she was trembling. Its okay, honey, its over. Mitch glanced over his shoulder. Get him out of here.

Jessie lifted her head and was surprised to see every one of her ranch hands standing at the bottom of the porch steps. Theyd obviously witnessed the whole thing but not one of them looked even slightly disturbed by the fact Mitch had tried to take Juds head off. If anything, they all seemed rather happy to see Jud sprawled out the ground and moaning in pain. It was Del who moved first, climbing the porch steps and giving Mitch a nod of approval before hauling Jud to his feet.

Jud swayed unsteadily for a moment before jerking away from Del. Already his jaw was starting to swell and bruise, and a small sliver of blood trailed down from his bottom lip. He was a big man, almost as big as Mitch, but he obviously had the intelligence to know when he was physically outmatched. Besides the special training, Mitch was a man protecting his woman which gave him a decided advantage, but it didnt stop Jud from making verbal threats.

Youre going to pay for this, Kincaid. Im going to enjoy destroying you.

Mitchs expression was indifferent. Do your damage, pal.

Oh I intend to. Your little performance here just cost Jessie her ranch. He brushed past Del but Mitch stepped in front of him before he reached the steps.

Your fight is with me, Wilkinson, not Jessie. If you do anything to hurt her, there wont be a hole big enough for you to hide in.

You brought this on, Jud spat. I came here willing to negotiate a handsome deal with Jessie for the ranch and offer her the life of leisure she deserves, but I can see shed rather be slumming it with you. Im going to dry this ranch up and make it worthless, Kincaid, and theres not a damn thing you can do to stop me.

Mitch crossed his arms and grinned. And just how do you plan to do that? You dont have control of the water source and you never will.

Well see about that. Money can buy a lot of things, including the means to choke the life out of this place.

Mitchs grin broadened. Apparently you havent heard the good news, Wilkinson. You see, the Sinclair ranch has new owners and I can promise they wont sell to you at any price. The look on Juds face was priceless. Mitch was enjoying himself immensely, as were the boys it seemed because they were all sporting the same triumphant grin he was.

Juds brows drew together. What do you mean new owners?

Mitch reached out and drew Jessie to his side. Me and Jessie, of course.

Juds face burned a bright red. Thats not impossible, he sputtered, I made an offer on that ranch months ago.

Lets just say I sweetened the pot a little. Face it, Wilkinson, youve got all the land around here youre ever going to get.

Maybe so, Jud said evenly, but one way or another Ill take you down. Id advise you to send him packing, Jessie, before he drags you down with him.

Jessie just smiled. The last blow in this fight would be hers. Now why would I do that to the father of my child?

Juds eyes widened in surprise as his gaze followed Jessies hand to her belly but he didnt say a word. Side stepping Mitch, he stomped down the stairs and shouldered his way past the boys then got in his pickup and left. They all stood there, watching as he turned the truck around and hit the gas, leaving a trail of dust behind him and he sped off down the road.

The hard lines on Mitchs face softened when he looked down at Jessie. Are you okay? He didnt hurt you, did he?

He just scared me a little, thats all. Ive never seen him like that before. Hes never tried to manhandle me and certainly doesnt have a reputation for violence.

Guess you just bring out the best in him, Del said to Mitch.

Jessie thought shed just about seen it all that evening, but Del teasing Mitch was the icing on the cake. The two men looked at each other and seemed to come to some silent agreement about mutual respect. Del stuck out his hand and Mitch stepped forward to shake it. An honest to God truce at last, she thought happily.

Ive wanted to deck that arrogant ass for ages, Del confessed.

If he comes around again, youre welcome to the first shot. He turned to the other men, who were still milling around in front of the porch. I dont want Wilkinson anywhere near Jessie again, is that understood? From now on, at least one man will stick close to the house unless Im home. Youll see to scheduling that, wont you Del?

No problem. The boys and I were going into town tonight, but wed be happy to hang around if you want.

No, you go ahead and enjoy youre Saturday night as usual. I doubt hell be back any time soon.

Oh, hell keep his distance for awhile, Hank said, but dont make the mistake of thinking hell give up. Hell find some way to get even, you can be sure of that.

You think hell do something violent, Hank?

Naw, Juds not the type. I know he got a bit rough with you, Jessie, and Im mighty sorry about that but I dont think he meant to hurt you.

Jessie nodded, but she wasnt nearly as confident as Hank was. Shed felt small and helpless when Jud grabbed her but when hed made the remark about taking her inside and showing her what a real man was like, shed been genuinely afraid of him. She and Mitch had both stolen some of Juds power and dignity, the two things he prized most in this world. It wasnt likely he was going to forget that any time soon.

After the men had gone, she and Mitch went back inside and had a light dinner then settled down on the sofa to watch an old movie. She snuggled up close to his side, the hard muscular contours of his body reminding her of easily hed dropped Jud. Adam had never stood up against Jud because shed told him it would only cause more trouble and she didnt think any less of him for it. After all, hed only been complying with her wishes. But somehow Jessie knew Mitch never would have put up with Juds continual visits and pressure to sell the ranch. And that, she thought, was the difference between the depth of Adams love for her and the depth of Mitchs.

Adam had left it alone because he knew he wouldnt be around to handle the situation if he allowed it to escalate. But Mitch had put a choke hold on Jud by purchasing the Sinclair ranch without giving it a second thought, and when hed seen Jud grab her, hed charged in like a raging bull to protect her. As much as Jessie hated violence, she felt a rush of love for the way hed come to her rescue. She also found a great deal of comfort in knowing hed been able to control his anger regardless of his obvious desire to do even more bodily harm to Jud. Jessie stifled a yawn. It had been a long day and she was tired. She was just about to suggest they go to bed when she remembered her visit with Liz earlier. With everything that had gone on, she hadnt gotten the chance to tell Mitch about it.

I forgot to tell you I had another ultrasound today.

An ultrasound? He muted the sound on the television. Why didnt you tell me you were going to have one, I would have come with you.

Jessie sat up, attempting to keep her face expressionless. It wasnt planned. After Liz did the examination and listened to the babys heartbeat, she decided I needed an ultrasound.

Mitchs mouth went dry. Why would she do that? Theres not a problem with the babys heart is there?

No, theres no problem. She just heard somethingunusual and wanted to verify her suspicions.

Jessie, youre really starting to scare me.

Feeling guilty for making him worry, Jessie wound her arms around his neck and kissed him softly on the lips. Im sorry, I didnt mean to make it sound so ominous. What Im trying to say is that when we start furnishing the nursery, well need to buy everything in duplicate.

Chapter 11
Twins? He blinked once, swallowed the boulder that had lodged in his throat, and asked again, Youre carrying twins?

She laughed at the shell-shocked expression he wore. You look scared to death.

Mitch pulled her onto his lap. Not scared, happy. Life with you just gets better and better with each day that passes. Did that ultrasound tell you if they were boys or girls?

Liz wasnt sure. She wants me to come back next week for another one. Im supposed to drink something with a sugar in it before I go to make the babies more active. She couldnt tell because of the position they were in but if I can get them moving around a bit itll be easier to determine the gender. Youll come with me, wont you?

Nothing on earth could keep me from being there. He drew her closer. You know this means youll have to marry me now.

Oh, really?

Of course. It was hard enough to think of having one child out of wedlock, but having two kids before were married could scar me for life.

Ill take that into consideration and get back to you.

Come on, Jess. We love each other, weve made two babies together. We should get married.

God, how she wanted to say yes. But she couldnt, not until he came to her with the truth. Or admitted it to himself. She still wasnt entirely certain Mitch knew who he really was. Jessie looked into his eyes, wishing with all her heart she could take away the pain she saw hidden in their depths. She wanted to say his name when told him she loved him, wanted to speak it out loud when she agreed to be his wife. Lately, shed reverted to calling him Kincaid because she felt it was only compounding the lie, embedding it even deeper inside of him by calling him Adam.

She put her palm against his cheek. Can we talk about this later? Im too happy about the babies right now to let anything spoil it. I just want to go to bed, make wild, passionate love with you, and fall asleep in your arms.

Disappointment was shoved to the back of his mind when she drew him down for a hungry kiss that promised so much more. The battle of wills could wait; tonight he wanted nothing more than to give her what shed asked for. Leaning forward, he grabbed the remote and shut off the television then stood up with Jessie in his arms and headed for the stairs.

Jessie nuzzled her nose against his neck. What about the lights?

Ill get them later.

I thought we were going to bed for the night.

We are, he said with a sexy grin, but Ill come down and turn them off in between rounds.

The muscles in her abdomen clenched. So its going to be one of those nights, she purred.

Oh yeah, it was definitely going to be one of those nights, he thought as he lowered Jessie to her feet beside the bed and tugged her shirt over her head. Just like their first night together when hed been drunk from the taste of her lips, his hunger practically insatiable as their bodies moved in perfect rhythm. Hed take his time touching and caressing and kissing until she was so hot for him shed climax on the first penetrating thrust and no doubt take him with her. And hed fall in love with her all over again, as he always did when they shared their bodies so intimately with each other.

***

Del helped Mitch carry the last large box into the nursery while Jessie sat in the brand new rocker trying desperately not to cry. As soon as theyd found out she was carrying two baby boys, theyd raced into town and poured through ordering catalogs to pick out just the right furniture for the nursery. Once the cribs and changing stations and about a hundred other accessories had been ordered, theyd stopped by the paint store and picked out a soft blue for the walls and shed spent the next few weeks scraping off the old paint and putting on the new. Shed been excited this morning when Mitch told her the furniture had arrived and that he and Del were going into town to pick it up, but she hadnt known about the rocker. Apparently hed ordered it on the sly and her heart had all but melted when they returned and Mitch raced into the house and ordered her to keep her eyes closed while Del hauled it in.

Eyeing the two men now as they rubbed their chins and debated the wisdom of buying so many things where assembly was required, it was hard to believe theyd once felt nothing but animosity towards each other. All of the men seemed to have a new found respect for Mitch and even the people in town had warmed up to him. She thought it had a lot to do with the way the boys bragged about how hed put Jud in his place, but it was also because they saw the change in him too. Well, she couldnt exactly call it a change since Mitch was just being himself, but since they all still believed he was Adam it was the differences between the two brothers they saw and liked.

You know, Del said as he stared at the instructions for one of the cribs, Hank has been pissing and moaning because you wouldnt let him climb up on the barn roof when it needed repairs last week.

Mitch was already nodding his head. He said it made him feel old and useless. Putting all this stuff together might help build his self-esteem back up.

It just might curb the cantankerous mood hes been in lately too.

Mitch arched a brow. You think so?

No, Del chuckled, but at least we wouldnt be the ones trying force slot A into Slot B and wondering why we had parts left over in the end.

From her corner, Jessie ventured to suggest doing it by herself. Im not completely inept, you know, and Liz said I can do everything I did before except lift anything heavy.

No, the men said in unison.

Jessie rose to her feet and planted her hands on her hips. I cant just mill around the house doing nothing for the next six months! Im perfectly capable of

No, came back in stereo.

The two men exchanged glances, obviously quite pleased with themselves for providing a united front in this. She stomped her foot like a spoiled child. I will not be treated like an invalid! Im going to put this nursery together by myself whether you two over protective ogres like it or not. She lifted her chin, daring them to challenge her.

I had a feeling youd put up a fuss about it, Mitch said with a sigh. Thats why Del and I came up with plan B.

Plan B? Whats plan B?

He dug in his pocket, pulled out a key and dropped it into Dels hand. Then he strode across the room, whipped her up into his arms and carried her out of the nursery. Jessie tried to wriggle free, all the while being quite vocal about how the pair of them were nothing but big bullies, but he didnt set her down until after Del had locked the nursery door and secured the key in his own pocket.

Hank will open the door when he comes up in the morning to help you put everything together, Del said. We dont want to take any chances youll get hurt.

Those are my babies too, Mitch added, and Im going to make sure both you and them are safe while Im not around.

Incensed by his insinuation, Jessie glared up at him. Do you honestly think Id do anything to endanger my babies?

Mitch caressed the side of her face lovingly. Of course not, honey. But sometimes you get a notion in your head about fixing something and you dont even think about the possibility of getting hurt.

Jessie brushed his hand away irritably. I hardly think putting a few cribs and changing stations together constitutes a major health risk.

His smile was indulgent. Nonetheless, Hank will be here to do all the lifting or any climbing that needs to be done.

With a frustrated grunt, Jessie turned on her heel and tromped down the hall to their bedroom, making a point of slamming the door behind her. Now she knew how Hank felt when they wouldnt let him help fix the roof. At the thought of the older man, Jessies anger began to recede. Maybe Mitch and Del were right about letting him set up the cribs and whatever else needed to be put together. He was getting on in years and couldnt do some of the things he used to. That had to be hard for him to accept. The very least she could do was make sure he felt needed.

With determination, she left the bedroom and approached the men and stuck out her hand. I want the key.

Mitch was just as determined to hold his ground. Im sorry, Jess, but I cant trust you not to overdo it.

Fine, I accept that, but how do you think Hank will feel knowing the only reason he was asked to do this was to keep me out of trouble? She stretched her hand out further. Give me the key. Im going to take it to Hank and tell him hes the only one I trust to help put the cribs together right. Judging by the vacant looks you both had when you pulled out the instructions, I wouldnt be lying.

Mitch had to concede the point. He was impatient when it came to things like this so it was entirely possible his impatience would lead to missing a screw or two. What would he do then, take the whole thing apart and start all over again? He nodded to Del and resisted the urge to laugh when Jessie snatched the key from his hand and hurried down the stairs with a haughty little toss of her head.

Del waited until he heard the slamming of the door to speak. You know, there was a time when I imagined Jessie and I would make a good couple. I had these visions of her cooking and cleaning, taking care of my children, being the demure little housewife.

Mitch snorted. You cant be talking about Jessie Buchanan.

Del shook his head. What the hell was I thinking? Doesnt it bother you that shes so independent andwell, bull headed?

Naw, it keeps me on my toes. Its kind of like reeling in a Marlin, you know?

Del grinned. The battle makes the catch all that much sweeter?

Exactly.

I guess thats what makes you and Jessie such a perfect match. As for me, I want a woman whos a little bit shy, one wholl need me to take care of her.

Jessie needs me take of her, at least in some respects. She just doesnt want me to take over completely, and I can understand that. I guess I feel the same way in regards to her.

Not wanting the need to turn into dependence, you mean?

He nodded, but it was Adam he was thinking about when he answered. Too many years were spent depending on her to pull to me out of the dark hole Id fallen into. I dont want that ever to happen again. The only thing I need from Jessie now is her love.

***

Jessie sat across from Liz at the little caf a few blocks from the clinic waiting for her to say something. With only three month to go before the babies were born, she was desperate for Mitch to acknowledge he wasnt Adam. Shed waited it out, hoping he would come to the conclusion himself that the name on the birth certificates should be his, not his brothers. Waiting and hoping obviously wasnt the answer, but so far she hadnt been struck with any brilliant ideas as to how to change the situation. And thats what led her to the decision to tell Liz everything and ask for her advice.

Liz set her cup down and looked at Jessie. I guess the most important thing is to figure out which of the two scenarios is the real one. Did he consciously take Adams place as a way to resolve his own guilt over his death and keep his brother alive, or does he honestly believe he is Adam?

I wish I knew, Jessie sighed. I cant just come out and ask him.

You said he made a lot of blunders, especially when he first got there. When you pointed it out, did he try to change it?

Change it in what way?

Did he try to become more like Adam?

Jessie thought about it for a moment. Not really. When I told him he kissed different and the way he made love was different than it was before, he asked me to explain the difference. If anything it became even more intense and moreloving. So I guess the answer to that is no, he didnt try to become more like Adam.

Then Id say he knows hes not Adam, otherwise hed be doing everything he could to act the same as his brother did.

But the other scenario doesnt work either. Maybe at first he felt guilty over Adams death, but weve worked through that.

Okay, so you helped him get past the guilt and pain of losing his brother, but where did that leave him? Between a rock and a hard spot, thats where. He loves you, Jess, and hes probably scared to death hell lose you if he tells you the truth now.

An ache settled deep in her heart. Sometimeshe gets this look in his eyes, as if somethings eating at him. I thought it had to do with Adams death but I wonder now if its because he wants to tell me but doesnt know how.

So all we have to do is figure out how you can make it easier for him to do it.

Piece of cake, Jessie said dryly. They sat there for several minutes tossing ideas back and forth but couldnt seem to come up with anything either of them thought would really work.

I think youre going to have to play a little hardball, Liz said. No more trying to coax it out of him. Youre going to have to do some jabbing, throw a few sucker punches. She leaned forward. Look, Jess, I dont think theres anything more important to Mitch than you and those babies. Its got to be killing him knowing Adams name will be on the birth certificates. If you dont want to confront him straight up, then youll need to give him one hell of a reason to tell you himself.

What did you have in mind?

Tell him you want to name the first born son after him. Play it up. Tell him a son should have his fathers name.

Jessie winced. I dont know, Liz. I dont think I can deliberately hurt him like that. And anyway, theres two babies in here, remember? All hed have to do is say he wants to name the other one Mitch.

Yes, but you can counter that with objections. They dont have to be reasonable, you know. You can tell him you want to name one of the babies after your father or something.

Jessie put her elbows on the table and propped her chin on her hands. Maybe I should just come right out and tell him I know.

You could, Liz agreed, but what if were wrong? What if Mitch really thinks hes Adam, or what if hes just not ready to face it yet? I think it would be better if he accepted it on his own, even if you have to goad him a little bit to get him to do it.

Youre probably right. I just hope I can pull it off.

Itll work, Im sure of it. So, what else is happening out at the ranch? Has Jud caused any more trouble?

Surprisingly enough, no. Even Mitch is starting to believe Jud is all wind and no sail. Maybe Jud finally figured out he wasnt ever going to get his hands on the Sinclair ranch and gave up.

I doubt it. Word around town is that hes still hopping mad about the whole thing. Liz laughed softly, amusement dancing in her eyes. Mitch damn near took his jaw off. He had to stick to soup and mashed up food for a week.

He deserved it.

According to Jud it was totally unjustified. He said all he was doing was talking to you when your crazy boyfriend worked himself up into a jealous rage and hit him.

Thats a lie, Jessie hissed. She reached for the coffee cup and brought it unsteadily to her lips.

I know. The boys made sure everyone heard about the way Jud grabbed you.

Jessie set the cup down, curling her fingers around it to keep them from shaking. Theres more to it than that. I didnt tell Mitch because he was furious enough as it was. Judwell, he made some crude comment about taking me inside and showing me what a real man was like.

Jud said that?

Yes, and it really scared me.

Oh, Jess, you dont honestly think he would have forced himself on you, do you? I know Juds not exactly the most gentle man around and he can get mighty pushy when it comes to getting something he wants, but hed never go so far as to hurt you or any woman that way.

I dont think so either. It wasnt so much what he said, but the way he said it.

Liz nodded. Jud feels threatened by him because he knows Mitch isnt the least bit intimidated. I imagine he figures the only way to bring Mitch to his knees is to take away the one thing that seems to matter to him.

Me, Jessie said grimly.

Yes. Who knows what was going through that arrogant head of his? He probably thought youd swoon and go racing into the house with him. God knows youre just about the only single woman in this county who hasnt succumbed to his swagger and tumbled into bed with him.

Which is the only reason he wants me, Im sure.

Its a double blow to his ego. Another man succeeded where he failed.

Thats ridiculous. Jud never had a chance with me even before Adam or Mitch came along.

Were talking about a man whose ego is bigger than his bank account, remember?

Jessie laughed. All right, I guess I can see why it would rankle him. What about you, Liz? Have you decided to give that sweet Mr. Jansen a chance to win your heart?

You know, Ive been putting him off for months because I wasnt quite sure I was ready for a relationship. But after listening to you and everything thats going on, Ive decided my life is much too dull. The next time he asks me out, I think Ill say yes.

Good, then maybe this town will have someone to gossip about besides me!

***

After her discussion with Liz and deciding time was getting too short to delay it much longer, Jessie set their plan in motion. Shed given it a few more days because she wanted to wait until the nursery was done and figured what she had to say would have a much bigger impact in the babys room. Since Mitch had been so obstinate about her not decorating the room by herself, she and Hank had contrived to keep him out of it until now. Mitch hadnt complainedmuch, but she knew his curiosity was driving him crazy. She also had an extra surprise waiting, one she hoped would touch him as much as his gift of the rocker had touched her.

As they finished up the dinner dishes, Jessie was torn between the excitement of finally being able to show him the finished nursery and dreading the conversation she knew would put the soulful look back in his eyes. But she wanted it all and couldnt have that when they were living a lie. Her stomach was twisted in knots and she was starting to get a headache. It was a gamble at best; so much to lose, so much to gain. It would all work out, she promised herself as she watched Mitch put away the last dish.

He put the towel away and returned to her, pressing a soft kiss to her forehead. Porch swing and ice tea or an old classic on television?

Neither. I have a surprise for you. The nursery is done.

You mean I finally get to enter the sanctuary?

Yes, she smiled as she slipped her hand into his and pulled him out of the kitchen. Now Hank and I put a lot of time and effort into it and I think youll love it, but if theres anything you want to change, Im willing to negotiate. As they reached the door of the nursery, Jessie pulled out the key and slipped it into the lock. Close your eyes. I want you inside the room first so you can get the full impact.

Mitch grumbled a little but did as she asked and let her lead him into the room. She gave his hand a squeeze then told him to open his eyes. It seemed as if hed stepped into a whole different world and for several minutes all he could do was turn in slow circles trying to take it all in. The walls were no longer simply powder blue; there were soft, billowy clouds and a colorful rainbow on one side and lush, green pastures with horses painted on the other. Matching

cribs had been placed on either side of the window and beside them, identical changing stations stocked with diapers and powder, wipes and receiving blankets.

His brows drew together when he realized the room seemed much bigger than before. You knocked the wall out

Before you get yourself all worked up about it, Hank and Kenny did it and they wouldnt even let me in the room until all the debris had been cleared out.

Slowly, he crossed the room to the little sitting area shed created from the additional space provided by the second room. His heart thumped heavily in his chest as he drew closer. There was Jessies rocker, the one hed so carefully chosen because its elegance and beauty reminded him of her. But it was the piece of furniture beside it that stirred such strong emotions deep inside of him. The coloring of the wood was a perfect match, but the rocker next to Jessies was much larger and heavier and had been built to accommodate a mans frame.

Do you like it? She asked softly.

Overwhelmed by her gift, Mitch didnt trust his voice not to crack. Pulling her into his arms, he smothered her face with kisses then hugged her before bringing his mouth back to hers. Her belly, which was now full and round, pressed into him and for the first time since hed found out about her pregnancy it didnt seem surreal. Those were his babies growing inside of her and soon they would be a family. He could no longer put off telling his parents and sister about them. His sons deserved to have loving grandparents and an aunt who would no doubt spoil them rotten, but that meant coming clean with Jessie. He had no choice, but hed wait until after they were born. He wouldnt risk upsetting her this late in the pregnancy.

I guess that means you like it, she said when he let her up for air.

I love it. Thank you, Jess.

Her smile was radiant as she turned to look at the rockers sitting side by side. Cant you just picture it; you and me, each of us with a baby in our arms, rocking them to sleep? Her smile never faltered when she looked up at him. Ive put a lot of thought into this. I want our first born son to be named after his father, Adam Ryan Kincaid.

Chapter 12
Mitch felt as if hed taken a solid punch to the gut. He stood there unblinking, the pain in his chest sharp and raw. Wewe could name our other son after my brother, he managed to squeeze out.

Jessie kept the smile frozen on her lips. Please, please let this work. I considered that too, but Ive really got my heart set on naming him after my father.

Your father, of course, he said mechanically.

Mitch stared at the rockers, Jessies vision of them with the babies in their arms swimming before his eyes. Was it selfish to want his first born son to have his own name instead of Adams? And if she wanted their other son to be named after her father, how could he deny her that? Even if they had another son later, it wouldnt be the same. It weighed heavily on his heart but he didnt know what to do. He couldnt tell Jessie who he was, not when the emotional strain could affect the babys health, but if he waited until after they were born it would be too late and neither of them would have his name. Mitch came to the same conclusion hed drawn earlier; he wouldnt risk upsetting her this late in the pregnancy.

I think its a great idea, he told her. Adam andand Had Jessie ever told him what her fathers name was? Im sorry, honey, for the life of me I cant remember your fathers name.

She should have been disappointed hed given in so easily, hurt even. Instead Jessie found herself fighting an unreasonable anger. She turned away from him, unable to look him in the face. How could he do this to her, to them, to their children? Drawing in a slow, steady breath, she walked over to the cribs and forced herself not to lash out at him. She wouldnt have minded naming one of the babies after her father; Jonathan Nathaniel Buchanan would have been proud to have his grandson bear his name, but that wasnt what she wanted.

She thought of Liz and what shed said about jabbing at Mitch, hitting below the belt so hed come to his senses on his own. Well, the first attempt had done little more than put a small chink in the armor and that wasnt nearly good enough as far as she was concerned. An idea began to form, one she was sure Liz would applaud wholeheartedly. Jessie turned back around, offering a sympathetic smile to Mitch.

Its perfectly understandable to have forgotten since I dont talk about my father much. His name was Buford. Buford Porterhouse Buchanan.

How she kept from laughing, Jessie couldnt say. He just stood there as still as a statue while the color slowly drained from his face. If hed laughed and accused her of pulling his leg,

she didnt think she would have been able to maintain her composure. Fortunately for her and unfortunately for Mitch, he seemed totally convinced she was telling the truth. Some small part of her felt guilty, but an even greater part of her was elated that shed at least gotten a reaction. If you could call paralysis a reaction, that is.

***

You didnt! Liz exclaimed when Jessie called her the next morning.

You should have seen his face, Liz. Im sure he was simply horrified at the idea of his son going through life as Buford Porterhouse Kincaid.

I have to admit, I never would have guessed you had enough ornery in you to do something like this. Buford Porterhouse, indeed, she laughed. If that doesnt make Mitch want to reclaim his own identity, I dont know what will.

It obviously did something because he was didnt say much afterwards and he was pretty withdrawn this morning at breakfast.

Keep me posted, Jess. My first appointment is here so I have to run, but Im here if you need someone to talk to.

After she hung up, Jessie spayed her fingers across her belly. Dont worry little ones, I promise neither one of you will be named Buford.

Pushing herself up from the chair, she wandered around the house for awhile daydreaming about being able to hold her babies. With the nursery done and Mitch putting his foot down about her doing any work around the ranch, daydreaming was about all she had to do. She didnt even have one of the ranch hands to talk to because everyone but Hank was gone and after hed milled around the kitchen for about an hour looking bored stiff, shed shooed him out and told him to go find something to do in the barn. At least she only had to fill half the day because Mitch promised to be back early.

Maybe thats what was bothering her, making her feel so restless. It wasnt because hed taken off by himself, he often did that now to get supplies or to run over to the Sinclair ranch to make sure things were running smoothly now that Tom and Becky were gone. It was because of how quiet hed been this morning and how vague hed been about where he was going. Jessie stopped, an unsettling feeling washing over her. What if what shed said last night had pushed him too far? What if he was out there now, driving around feeling lost and alone and confused? Shed been so angry at him for not blurting out the truth after shed goaded him about the babys name when she should have been more understanding about how difficult the situation was for him. What had she done?

Frantic with worry, Jessie hurried back to the kitchen and grabbed the pager from the counter and dialed Hanks number. Mitch confided in the older man more than anyone except her, surely Hank would know where hed gone off too. Pacing back and forth, her mind started detailing all sorts of horrible things that could have happened. What if he was so distracted by his thoughts he ran off the road? What if he was lying in a ditch somewhere right now with no hope of anyone searching for him for hours? Jessie jumped when Hank came bursting through the door.

Jess, whats wrong? Is it the babies?

No, no, Im fine. I know this sounds crazy, but Im worried about MiAdam and wondered if you knew where he was going today?

Hank visibly relaxed. You scared the hell out of me with that page. I thought youd gone into labor or something.

Im sorry, I really am. About Adam? He shifted uncomfortably, obviously reluctant to tell her what he knew. Hank, please, he seemed so distant this morning and was evasive about where he was going.

Hank looked down at the floor. He had some phone calls to make.

Jessie waited for him to elaborate but he only stuck his hands in his pockets and started looking around the room as if it suddenly held great interest for him. What kind of phone calls? Why couldnt he make them here?

I guess they were personal, he shrugged, studying the pattern of the curtains.

Personal? So personal he didnt want me to overhear? Jessie swayed unsteadily and had to brace herself against the counter. Hank, please tell me hes not considering another mission!

That brought his attention back to her. Now dont go upsetting yourself, Jess, its nothing like that.

Then what?

Hank groaned. I cant tell you, its not my place.

Hank, so help me God if you dont tell me whats going on Im going to get my truck and scour the county until I find him.

All right, all right, but hes going to skin me alive for telling you.

She crossed her arms. And Ill skin you alive right now if you dont.

He mumbled something about jumping from the fire into the frying pan then heaved a sigh. Hes calling his parents and his little sister. Hehe wanted to tell them about you and the babies.

Something deep inside twisted painfully. Hes never told them about me? Theythey dont even know Im pregnant? Is he ashamed of me, Hank?

Hell no, hes not ashamed of you, he barked.

Well, he must be if they dont even know about me or the babies. Tears pooled in her eyes.

Had she been so self-absorbed, so wrapped up in preparing for the birth that she hadnt even considered the possibility he was ashamed of being with her? Because she had no family of her own, she hadnt even thought to ask about his or whether hed told them or not. But then,

what could he say? Mom and Dad, I have some news for you. Ive been pretending to be Adam for months now and got his girlfriend pregnant? At least now she knew for certain he didnt think he was Adam, otherwise he wouldnt have hesitated at telling his family about her and the babies.

Jess? Its not what you think, honey. He loves you and he loves those babies.

Then why hasnt he told them before now?

Itscomplicated.

Jessie stared at him and suddenly she just knew. Whether hed figured it out or Mitch had told him, Hank knew it wasnt Adam whod come back from that last mission. For months shed been torn up inside thinking Mitch had been struggling to deal with everything on his own and now she discovers Hank has been his confidante all along. She should have been happy to know hed had someone to talk to, instead she was hurt because it hadnt been her. Adam had always depended on her to exorcise his demons, to help him through the rough spots, and though he and Hank had been close she knew hed never opened up to the older man the way he had with her. The realization that Mitch didnt need her the way Adam had cut like a knife.

Thank you, Hank. II think I need to be alone right now.

Jess

Im going to my room to rest for awhile.

Hank caught her arm in a gentle grip as she walked by. There are some things he just cant talk to you about no matter how much he wants to. That man loves you, Jess. Ive never seen any man love a woman the way he loves you so dont go getting your feelings all hurt because he confided in me. Hes not the same person he was before and he deals with things differently now, you have to accept that.

She knew all too well he wasnt the same person and couldnt help thinking how ironic it was that Adam had trusted her implicitly yet denied her his heart while Mitch, who was undeniably fierce in his love for her, couldnt give her the trust she so desperately longed to have. Maybe shed been wrong not to go to him and tell him she knew who he was. If it was his fear of losing her that was holding him back, it only stood to reason hed admit the truth if she assured him she love him.

Impulsively, she gave Hank a big hug. I do accept it, and Im glad he has someone he can talk to. Now if you dont mind, I think Ill go lie down for awhile. Jessie kissed him on the cheek then turned to go upstairs when he stopped her again.

Hey, Jess, can I ask you something?

Of course.

What made you fall in love with him this time? Was it because he changed?

A soft smile curved her lips. He hasnt changed, Hank. I imagine hes the same man hes always been. I just didnt know him before.

She turned away before he could ask her anything more probing and trudged up the stairs. He probably suspected she knew but that was okay. Shed already made up her mind to confront Mitch with it tonight after dinner anyway. The pregnancy was wearing her out as it was and the constant worry over Mitch only added to the run down feeling that seemed to dog her every day now. In short, she was systematically being drained both physically and mentally and didnt think she could take much more. Curling up on the bed, Jessie let exhaustion overtake her and was asleep within minutes.

It was late afternoon when she woke to find Mitch lying beside her. He was propped up on one elbow, his eyes transfixed on the hand he was holding to her belly. Shed never seen him like this before, so filled with emotion, his expression totally unguarded, and if shed ever had

any doubts that he loved her or wanted the babies she was carrying they were instantly banished. Then one of the babies kicked against the palm of Mitchs hand. For a moment he looked startled but when it happened again, his face lit up and a huge grin spread across his face.

Its getting cramped in there, she said softly.

Mitchs hand slid up around her waist to her back and pulled her closer. I love you, he said thickly.

Jessie curled her fingers around his neck and pulled him down to her. I love you too. She brushed her mouth against his in a slow, seductive sweep. Have I ever told you how incredibly sexy you are? His response was little more than a low, masculine groan as Jessie traced his lips with her tongue. Or how just looking at you makes my heart race. She left a trail of moist kisses along his firm jaw line and down the side of his neck. Or how the scent of your skin drives me half crazy with desire. Another low moan rumbled deep in his chest. Or how

Perfectly we fit together, he finished for her as his hand glided up her thigh and slipped beneath her dress.

Jessies body jerked in response as he caressed her through the thin material of her panties then slid them off and tossed them aside. He didnt bother undressing her and paused only long enough to shove his boxers and jeans down to his knees before easing himself inside of her. She seemed especially sensitive to the slick heat of him as her muscles stretched to accommodate his thickness, every gentle stroke sending her higher and higher until her entire body convulsed uncontrollably from the tidal wave of sensations that ripped through her. And as the warmth of his seed spread deep inside of her, Jessie silently cried out the name of the only man shed ever truly loved. Mitch.

***

Mitch had come to some resolutions after hed spoken with both his parents and his little sister, Jill. It hadnt been easy telling them exactly what had been going on at the ranch, though theyd known thats where hed been staying for the past several months. Originally hed told them he had remained here just to help Jessie out. They knew about Jessie, of course, because Adam had told them so they already had a soft spot for her even though theyd never met. After all, this was the woman whod helped their son get past the dark moods that followed each mission, and she was the only woman whod held Adams attention for more than a few weeks so they knew she had to be someone special.

Theyd listened without comment as hed asked while he told them the real reason hed gone there and how hed fallen love from the moment hed first laid eyes on her. He told them

hed only intended to stay for a few weeks, give Jessie her memories and move on, and how loving her as he did now made that impossible. Then he told them about the babies. He could hear his mother softly crying while his father remained staunchly quiet, an indication that he was just as choked with emotion as she was.

I want to marry her, Mitch told them, and I want to bring her to meet you before the babies are born.

You want us to keep up the illusion youre Adam? His father asked with a disapproving tone.

Just until after she has the babies. I want you to meet her but I cant risk upsetting her right now. Please Dad.

To his surprise, it was his mother who put her foot down. No, Mitch, we wont do it.

Then I cant bring her, he said, totally disheartened by her lack of support. Hed been counting on her to talk his father into it and without her as an ally his father would never consent to do it.

You can and you will, she told him firmly. Now you listen to me Mitchell Allen Kincaid, if that girl loves you as much as you say she does and if shes even half as smart as Adam bragged about her being, then it wont matter one bit to her.

How can you say that, Mom? I deceived her, she wont ever forgive me.

Her voice softened. You may have fooled her into thinking your name is Adam, but havent fooled her into thinking youre a different man than who you really are. You cant deceive the heart, honey. She fell in love with you for who you are inside and shell keep right on loving you after you tell her the truth especially once she knows your reasons for doing it.

Listen to your Mom, his father said. Tell Jessie before it goes any further.

How? How do I even begin to tell her what Ive done?

Youll find the right words when the time comes, his mother assured him.

After hed hung up, Mitch had taken a few minutes to gather himself then dialed his little sisters number. Hed explained it all to her just as he had his parents, including their refusal to pretend he was Adam. Shed been of the same opinion they had; if Jessie really loved him, shed forgive him.

You know I loved Adam with all my heart, Jill said, but he never was one to express his feelings the way you do. Maybe Jessie doesnt know youre not Adam, but you obviously touched something deep down inside of her that he couldnt get to.

How do I know that for sure, Jilly?

Because if shed loved Adam the way she does you, he wouldnt have stayed with her and you know it. He couldnt have handled it and would have left regardless of how strongly he felt about her. He was never meant to have a love like that, Mitch, and it would have terrified him.

Maybe he didnt know. She could have hidden it from him, he said miserably.

Jill laughed. Oh Mitch, stop killing yourself over this. From what youve told me, Jessie is extremely affectionate and expressive of her feelings. So ask yourself this; if she really wanted to hide her love from you, how successful do you think shed be?

Mitch closed his eyes, picturing Jessies brilliant smile, the look on her face when he entered the room, the soft touches, the way she kissed him, the love that shone from her eyes when he made love to her. Even her voice changed when she spoke to him. It was soothing and

gentle, laced with emotion that ran strong and deep. His sister was right. If shed ever looked at Adam as she did him or spoke with such love in her voice, Adam would have ran like a frightened rabbit.

She couldnt, he finally answered.

So go to her, Mitch. Tell her the truth then bring her back here so we can welcome her into the family.

Feeling as if an enormous weight had been lifted from his shoulders, hed high tailed it back to the ranch and found her in the bedroom taking a nap. Stripping off his boots, hed climbed onto the bed and lay on his side so he could watch her sleep. Her beauty stole his breath and he hadnt been able to resist touching her. His hand stopped wandering when it came to her belly and for quite some time hed been content to hold it there marveling over idea that their love had produced two baby boys. Then hed felt the jab of a tiny foot against his palm and his heart surged with the power of his love for both his sons and their mother, and the need to join his body with hers and become almost unbearable.

Jessie lay nestled in his arms, confident for the first time in months that everything would work out. All she had to do was make it through dinner and then they could sit down and talk, all night if they had to. Whatever lies or half-truths that had been told would be aired and together theyd figure out some way to break the news to everyone else. Hank knew of course, but she

doubted any of the other ranch hands had figured it out, and then theyd conquer the townspeople. Surely once they all understood that she accepted who he really was, they would too.

Jessie reluctantly moved away from the warmth of Mitchs body and got out of bed. Ive done nothing but laze around all day, she said as she slipped her panties back on. The boys will be expecting dinner in an hour and I dont even have a clue what Im going to make yet.

Whatever you decide, Im sure it will be delicious. Make it simple, Im sure the boys wont mind. Ill get dressed and come down to help you in a few minutes.

After shed gone, Mitch pulled on his boxers and jeans and padded over to the closet. There hadnt been much time over the past several months to read Adams journal because Jessie was generally too close by for him to feel comfortable pulling it out. But hed managed enough stolen moments to get through almost all of it and now that hed made the decision to tell Jessie the whole truth, it suddenly seemed very important to finish reading the last few pages. Hed used it at first as a way of gleaning insight into Adams life with Jessie so he wouldnt make so many blunders, and in the beginning it had helped. But once hed made up his mind to stay, hed stopped worrying about what Adam would have said or done and simply did things his own way. After Adams death, the journal had made him feel closer to his brother at a time when hed really needed it, but now it just seemed to open up the old wounds and renew his grief each time he read it.

Standing under the light of the closet, Mitch flipped to the last three pages. There were often large gaps of time between one writing and another, but Adams last entry was dated only two days before their last mission. As he began to read, Mitch was disturbed by the tone of his brothers words. Adam spoke of his life in terms of accomplishments; things hed done that he was proud of; the missions theyd been on where hed managed to lead them all out safely; his love for his family and how close he and Mitch had been all their lives. He mentioned things he was grateful for, things that had brought him happiness, and the things he regretted and would have liked to make amends for. It had an ominous ring to it and as Mitch turned to the next page his fears were confirmed.

Ive never dwelled on the dangers of a mission, especially when its only a few days off and I need my mind to be clear and focused. Still, I cant shake the feeling that this one isnt going to end without a few casualties. I feel so strongly about it in fact that Im seriously considering asking Mitch to stay behind. Who am I kidding? It wouldnt accomplish anything even if I did. Hed want to know why and Id have no good reason except this bad feeling twisting at my gut. Admitting that would only make him more determined to be there to watch my back.

Im not afraid for myself; Ive never been afraid to look death in the face, but the thought of something happening Mitch makes my chest feel like its in a vice. Thats why Im going to kick him off the team after this mission. Hell be hopping mad at first, but hell get over it in time

and see it was all for the best. Ill miss having him around but at least I can stop worrying that hell get himself killed because he followed me into Special Ops. Ive thought a lot about it and realize now how selfish Ive been by not forcing him to get out years ago.

I guess there are a lot of things Ive been selfish about in my life; allowing my brothers sense of loyalty to keep him locked into a profession he doesnt like is only one of them. Hanging onto Jessie knowing I could never give her the love she deserves is another. Its going to hurt giving her up, shes been my rock for a long time and Im not sure Id even be here today if it werent for her. But shes sacrificed enough of her life for me. Its time I sacrificed something for her.

Chapter 13
There was one last entry and Mitch read it twice before putting the journal away. Not in a million years would he have guessed what Adam had chosen to write as his final words, and there was no doubt in his mind that his brother had somehow sensed this mission would be his last. But hed gone into it anyway, without hesitation, without fear, because he was doing the one thing that truly made him happy. Mitch could accept his brothers death now and it was largely due to the journal. Because after reading that last paragraph, he understood that Adam had sacrificed his life before the mission ever began.

There was a lightness in his step that hadnt been there for months as he made his way to the kitchen and stood in the doorway. Jessie had her back to him and was humming softly as she chopped up potatoes and plopped them into the pan to boil. Hed always thought she was beautiful, but watching her now in her bare feet, her belly heavy with his sons, and the soft flush from just having made love still on her cheeks, Jessie was simply stunning. He moved away from the door and went to her, surprised to find the sting of tears behind his eyes when she turned and walked into his arms as if she knew thats what he needed most at that moment.

He pressed his cheek to hers and there was a desperation in his voice when he whispered, Marry me, Jessie. I need you. Nothing will ever be right if I cant have you as my wife.

Hed asked her at least once a day since finding out she was pregnant, and her answer had always regretfully been no. This time, however, when she drew her head back and looked into his eyes there was no hesitation, no doubts, no fears. She loved him, it was as pure and simple as that, and everything else was inconsequential.

Yes, Ill marry you.

Expecting her to deny him as shed done in the past, Mitch opened his mouth to offer the usual arguments. He blinked then drew in a shaky breath, not quite believing hed heard her right. She was smiling up at him, her eyes misted with tears.

Yes? Did you say? Blood rushed to his head when she nodded and his knees felt a little wobbly. When? He asked breathlessly.

Whenever you want.

Tomorrow, he croaked out.

Jessie laughed. You sure you dont want to drag the minister away from his dinner and get married tonight?

He looked at her hopefully. Do you think hed mind?

I was teasing! You have to give me at least a few days to find a new dress and theres a marriage license to obtain and we need to see when the ministers free to perform the ceremony. I dont need anything fancy, but I would like all the boys to be there and Liz, of course

Mitch growled softly. Two days, thats all I can give you.

She couldnt make him wait, not when she could see how anxious he was about it. Okay, I think I can manage that.

Two days would seem like an eternity, but it would give him time to shop for a wedding ring and buy a new suit. He wanted to do it right and make everything perfect for Jessie. And now that he knew she loved him enough to marry him, Mitch felt a little more confident that shed forgive him for deceiving her all these months. She was a good woman with a kind heart. Surely if she could forgive Adam for not loving her enough to give up being an agent to stay with her, she could forgive him for loving her so much he hadnt wanted to take the chance of losing her.

Oh dear, Jessie fretted when she glanced at the clock and saw how late it was. Youll have to help me with dinner or well have a riot on our hands.

Mitch gave her a quick kiss. Just tell me what to do.

While Mitch set the table and chopped vegetables for the salad, Jessie finished the potatoes and put the pork steaks in the oven to broil. She tried not to think about the wedding or the fact that in two days shed become Mrs. Mitch Kincaid because her hands shook every time she did and twice she nearly dropped the food she was preparing. So she concentrated instead on how she was going to approach him after dinner and what she would do if he tried to deny it.

Shed be very calm about the whole thing, she told herself firmly. The most important thing to do was to assure him of her love. Shed explain everything; how shed been wary of the changes shed seen him, how shed figured out he wasnt Adam, that deep in her heart shed probably always known it. And if he denied it, shed have to convince him that the only way their marriage would work was if there was complete honesty between them. She wouldnt issue any threats about making him leave or keeping him from his children because the thought of

being without Mitch was even harder to bear than the idea hed refuse to admit the truth. She wouldnt get angry, and with any luck she wouldnt get emotional. A nice, quiet talk is all she wanted.

He was unusually subdued during dinner and Jessie hoped it was because it had finally occurred to him that hed have to tell her or face living the rest of his life with his brothers name. If she had to, shed use that argument too. Did he really want people referring to his wife and children as Adams? No, Mitch was too proud for that. Maybe he was so quiet tonight because he was trying to figure out the best way to approach her. Jessies spirits rose. It would explain why hed gone off alone to talk to his family today. Hed needed someone to confide in just as shed done with Liz.

They said very little to each other after the boys had gone back to the bunkhouse. There was only the sound of clanking dishes as they cleared the table and put away the leftovers. Several times she caught him casting furtive glances her way but she didnt ask if anything was wrong as she would have on any other day. Only when the dishes were done and they had each others undivided attention would she allow the conversation to take place. That was her intention anyway, and it might have happened just as shed planned if Jud Wilkinson had chosen to show up on her doorstep just as she was scrubbing the last pot.

Perhaps if they hadnt both been so lost in their own thoughts they might have heard him pull up to the house. As it was, neither of them was aware of his presence until he rapped on the door. Thinking one of the ranch hands had forgotten something, Jessie handed Mitch the pot to dry while she went to answer the door. Shocked to find it was Jud standing on the porch and not one of the boys, she merely stood there gaping at him.

I have something important to tell you, Jess. Can I come in?

She glanced nervously over her shoulder to make sure Mitch was still in the kitchen before looking back at Jud. I really dont think thats such a good idea.

He held up a manila envelope. You need to hear this. Its about Kincaid. Hes been lying to you, Jess, and Im

What the hell are you doing here? Mitch roared.

Jessie let out a startled squeak, her heart lodging in her throat when she turned and saw the thunderous expression on Mitchs face. He looked positively murderous as he closed the distance between them. Now that she was no longer blocking the doorway, Jud took the opportunity to slip by her and stepped inside the house.

I have some documents I think Jessie will be very interested in seeing. He handed the envelope to Jessie, but the triumphant smile he reserved for Mitch.

She looked at the envelope then back at Jud. What is it?

A copy of the deed to the Sinclair ranch, for one. He leveled his gaze at Mitch. And an obituary.

A low growl vibrated in the back of Mitchs throat. Just what the hell kind of game is this, Wilkinson?

Oh, its no game, I can assure you. You see, Ive been doing some digging and Ive discovered quite a lot about youand your family.

Mitch took a menacing step forward. I warned you what Id do if you hurt Jessie in any way.

Im not the one who lied to her Kincaid. Jud smirked when Mitch stopped his advance and cast a guilty look at Jessie.

Jessie didnt have to open the envelope to know what was inside. Mitch knew too, she could see it in his eyes. She saw something else there too, a fear so great it was making him tremble. She wondered how angry Jud would be if he knew hed just unwittingly presented her with the perfect opportunity to prove her love to Mitch. Smiling, she handed the envelope back to Jud.

What are you doing? Jessie, I really think you should

No, I shouldnt. She went to Mitch and tucked herself up under his arm. Nothing you can say or do is going to change the way I feel.

Oh, I think it will. Jud ripped the envelope open and pulled out a fist full of papers. He waived them furiously in front of her. I have proof that Kincaid has been lying to you for months.

Mitchs whole body went rigid. She could feel the tension mounting in him but he didnt bother trying to deny what Jud said and it gave her hope. Amazingly, she wasnt nervous or upset at all. She offered Mitch a brief smile before turning her attention to Jud.

Really, Jud, she laughed. Youve got to find something more constructive to do with your time.

A heated flush worked its way up his neck. Ive been extremely industrious with my time. If you wont read whats on these papers then Ill tell you. It wasnt Adam Kincaid who purchased the Sinclair ranch, it was

Mitch, she supplied.

Mitch jerked as if hed been shocked. Jessie, I can

You see, she interrupted before he could go any further, when Adam was killed over a year ago, Mitch came to the ranch to tell me personally. Obviously Id cared a great deal for Adam, but I was never in love with him. She looked up at Mitch, her voice barely above a whisper. It was you I fell in love with.

Juds eyes narrowed suspiciously. Youre telling me you knew this whole time he wasnt Adam?

It was nearly impossible to tear her gaze away from Mitch, but she had to convince Jud she was telling the truth. Of course I knew. But the attraction between us was so strong and happened so fast we didnt think the boys or anyone in town would approve. So whenHank mistook him for Adam, we both played along.

Jud scoffed at that. You honestly expect me to believe he was willing to pretend he was Adam forever?

Dont be silly, she said, the lie rolling so easily from her lips she could almost believe her own story. Originally, he was going to leave for a while. That would give me time to break the news of Adams death so that when Mitch came back, people wouldnt be so judgmental about our relationship.

But you didnt do that, Jud pointed out, his tirade losing steam. You continued to play out this charade.

Jessies hand moved to her belly. As you can see, that plan got shot down when I found out I was pregnant.

Jud looked like a deflated balloon as he shoved the papers back in the envelope. Youre right, he sighed, I need to find something more constructive to do with my time. Imsorry, Jess. I wont say a word about this until youre ready to tell everyone. I suppose this mean the Buchanan ranch will never be up for grabs?

Jessie wrapped her arms around Mitchs waist. Not a chance. Were going to fill this house with children and it will remain in the family for generations to come. And Jud, youll have to get used to calling it the Kincaid ranch from now on. Mitch and I are getting married.

Well II guess congratulations are in order. He squared his shoulders and held his hand out to Mitch. Youre a lucky man, Kincaid.

Mitch hesitated for a moment before releasing his hold on Jessie to shake hands with Jud. Im well aware of how lucky I am. And now if you dont mind, I think Jessie needs to get some rest.

Yes, of course, Ill be going now. He took a step towards the door then paused and looked back at them. Im having a barbeque at the end of the month. Practically the whole town will be there. Id really like it if you two could come.

Mitch looked down at Jessie. Her nod was almost imperceptible; she was leaving the decision up to him. Well be there. He doubted that he and Jud would ever become good friends, but he respected the man for knowing when he was defeated and for offering an apology. Ill walk out with you, he said, suddenly feeling very gracious. And why shouldnt he? He no longer had to be afraid Jessie would leave him and at last hed be able to reclaim his own name.

Jessie smiled to herself when she heard Mitch tell Jud he could use some advice on operating a cattle ranch. Things couldnt have worked out better if shed planned them. She was free to tell Mitch how much she loved him, and she wouldnt have the worry of Juds retaliation hovering over her. She heaved a sigh of relief, suddenly realizing just how much it taken out of her. A dull ache had settled in her lower back and the weight of the babies seemed heavier than usual. She took a few steps towards the living room then stopped with a harsh gasp when a sharp pain shot through her abdomen.

Jessie stood there for a moment, terrified by what the strange aches and pains could mean. She was still two months away from her due date and if she went into labor now there was a good chance the babies wouldnt survive. Panic welled up inside of her at the thought of losing their sons. She shuffled to the door holding her belly, praying that it was just a fluke, that the jabbing pain didnt mean anything. Shed just managed to make it onto the porch when the

second one nearly brought her to her knees. She reached out, bracing herself against a pillar with one hand and clutching her stomach with the other.

Two strong arms caught her just as she started to crumble, but when she tipped her head back to tell Mitch something was horribly wrong, it was Dels concerned face she saw. He kept a firm grip around her and hollered out for Mitch then lifted her gently in his arms. Vaguely, it registered that all the boys were gathered on or around the porch and if she hadnt been so worried about the babies, she would have been amused by it. Obviously theyd spotted Juds truck and had been lingering outside in case there was any trouble.

Fear tinged Mitchs voice when he bounded up the stairs and touched her cheek. Jessie, whats wrong? Is it the babies?

When she nodded, Mitchs heart dropped to the ground. Please God, he prayed, its too soon. From behind him, Jud started barking orders. He told one of them to go call Doctor Stewart and have her to meet them at the hospital then asked another one to get Mitchs keys and follow them in his truck. Then he slapped a hand on Mitchs shoulder and said hed drive them to the hospital.

Mitch just nodded helplessly as Jud gave him a gentle shove towards the pickup. Del followed with Jessie still in his arms and waited for him to climb in before lifting her onto Mitchs lap. He cradled her to his chest, murmuring soft words of comfort as Jud turned the truck around and headed down the road. She was deathly pale and small beads of perspiration had broken out along her forehead. He offered her comfort with his words and with the strength of

his arms around her even as his own insides shook with fear. They couldnt lose the babies, not now when Jessie was so close to term.

The drive seemed interminable and Jessies soft crying only heightened his uneasiness. Shed seemed so calm, so self-assured when shed stood up against Jud, but now he realized it was all just a brave front. If only hed been the one to answer the door none of this would have happened. He never would have let Jud come insideno, Mitch had to be honest with himself. He would have tried to keep the man out, but given the vengeful mood Jud was in he probably would have put up such a stink Jessie would have rushed out to see what was going on. The stress of seeing him and Jud arguing and possibly even getting into a physical fight would have been ten times more stressful for her.

Were here, Jud said as he pulled up to the emergency entrance. Let me get the door open first and Ill help you get Jessie out.

Mitch allowed him to open the door but, irrationally perhaps, refused to let Jud take Jessie from his arms. The way she was clinging to his neck, he doubted Jud could have pried her loose anyway. Liz Stewart was waiting at the entrance with a wheel chair but the look on Mitchs face must have told her he had no intention of letting Jessie go any sooner than he had to. With an indulgent smile, she wheeled the empty chair back inside and told him to follow her to a small room. After easing Jessie down onto the examination table, he stepped back and tried to be as unobtrusive as possible while Dr. Stewart questioned Jessie about the pains shed experienced.

Jessie told her about the heaviness shed felt just before the pains started. It wasnt as bad on the drive here, but I still felt like there was thispressure.

The first thing Id like to do is give you an examination. Then well hook you up to a few monitors just to make sure the babys heartbeats are strong and theyre not under any stress. Now I know this is going to be difficult considering how worried you are, but I need you to stay calm and try not to upset yourself. If youre blood pressure goes up or youre overly stressed, it affects them too.

Liz took a moment to check for the babys heartbeats with a stethoscope. Three strong hearts, she said with a smile.

Mitch let out an audible gasp. Three! Shes not having triplets is he stopped abruptly when the two women exchanged amused glances. That would be the two babies plus Jessies, he said with a sheepish grin.

Lizs eyes made an appreciative sweep down his muscular physique and back up again. So this is Mitchur, Adam, right?

You had it right the first time, he said.

Thank God, Liz sighed, Ive been prodding Jessie for months to tell you she knew.

Actually, it was Jud who pushed me into it, Jessie admitted.

Jud? Really? Well, weve certainly got some things to talk about. Right now, however, we need to get you examined and hooked up to that monitor. Would you like Mitch to stay or would you be more comfortable if he waited outside?

Im pretty sure hes seen it all. She looked at Mitch. Id like you to stay if thats okay.

Im not going anywhere, he said softly.

***

Liz peeked her head through the door. Is she still sleeping?

Mitch nodded and rose from the chair beside Jessies bed and crossed the room. Shes been sleeping soundly for the last two hours, he said, careful to keep his voice low.

Good, she needs it. Step outside for a minute so we can talk without waking her.

Mitchs stomach made a sickening lurch. He waited until the door closed behind them to ask the question that had been gnawing at him ever since theyd arrive. Is she going to lose them?

Theyre in no danger at the moment.

His heart clutched in his chest. At the moment? What does that mean? You said she was fine, that the babies were fine

Goodness, if you keep up like this Ill have to admit you too! Take a couple of deep breaths, everything is going to be okay. Would you like to sit down?

He shook his head. Justexplain what you said.

It was a false labor, which isnt all that uncommon and normally I wouldnt be too concerned. But with Jessie being as small as she is and carrying twins, Im worried the stress on her body is getting to be too much.

Its my fault this happened, he said miserably. If Id told her the truth months ago then Jud wouldnt have come barging in tonight and upset her.

I admit shes been worried about you, but what happened tonight had nothing to do with the false labor. She said shed been tired all day so obviously it was working up to that moment. The timing was purely coincidental.

I wish I could believe that, he said grimly.

Listen to me, Mitch. I didnt get a chance to hear everything that went on when Jud showed up, but when you left to go tell the boys she was okay Jessie gave me the highlights. She wasnt upset, at least not for herself. She was a little concerned with how you would react, but in truth she was ecstatic that she not only got to clear the air between the two of you but also got the chance to put Jud in his place and stop all that revenge nonsense.

Im pretty relieved about that myself. When Jud waved those papers in front of her I was just sure shed read them and then throw me out on my ass. Ive never been so scared in my life.

Jessies a very bright girl. She knew what she had and she wasnt about to let Jud or anyone else break you up.

How long has she known?

Oh, she suspected something wasnt quite right almost from the beginning, but she figured it out shortly after that first visit when she learned she was pregnant.

Mitch was floored. Shes known all this time? Why didnt she say something?

At first she wasnt sure if you actually thought you were Adam. She was afraid if she confronted you, it might push you over the edge.

Thats just like Jessie, isnt it? Always trying to fix people.

Liz smiled. Apparently, shes pretty good at it too.

Yeah, he smiled back, shes pretty good at.

Well, now its time for us to repay the favor and fix whats wrong with her.

Chapter 14
Bed rest! Jessie crossed her arms, scowling at both Mitch and Liz. You dont honestly expect me to stay in bed for the next two months.

Thats exactly what I expect, Liz said firmly.

And Ill be there to enforce it, Mitch added.

Ill just sneak out of bed every time you leave, Jessie said petulantly.

Ive got five ranch hands out in the waiting room working on a schedule right now and every one of them has given me their word that you wont be allowed to go any further than the bathroom and back when Im not around. Mitch ignored the indignant huff. Now, Liz has agreed that youre well enough to go through with the wedding plans and maybe a short reception afterwards. After that, youll be confined to bed rest until the babies are born.

Ill go stark raving mad if I have stay cooped up in the bedroom. Surely it wouldnt hurt to make the meals

Youll do nothing of the sort, Mitch interrupted. He glanced at Liz for support.

Youre doing fine, she assured him. Just dont let her con you with sweet talk or tears.

Oh, you two are impossible, Jessie snapped.

Mitch sat down on the edge of the bed and took her hand. Listen, sweetheart, I know it sounds like were bullying you, but its for your own good. We have to think of the babies right now. Jess, I want my sons to go full term. I want them to be strong and healthy but thats not going to happen unless you stay in bed.

Guilt washed over her for behaving so selfishly. Im sorry. Youre right, of course. Ill do whatever is necessary to keep them safe.

Thats my girl. He leaned over and kissed her. Im going to leave for a little while but Ill be back in a few hours to pick you up. I have a few last minute arrangements to make but Liz will be here to help you get ready.

Jessie looked confused. Arrangements for what? I told you Id behave so you dont need make any arrangements to have the boys guard me.

It has nothing to do with that.

Then what is it?

Youll find out soon enough. He gave her a quick kiss then made his escape before she had a chance to question him further.

Jessie stared at the empty doorway for a moment before turning her gaze back to Liz. What was that all about?

Liz shrugged. Youll find out soon enough.

Youre supposed to be watching after my health, Jessie pointed out. Working my blood pressure up and driving me to distraction isnt really in my best interest, or that of my babies.

The smile on Lizs face broadened. I guess thats a valid argument. She walked to the closet and pulled out a white garment bag and brought it over to Jessie. This is your wedding gown. Last night Mitch asked me to pick something up so this morning I ran down to the bridal shop and got this. She pulled out an ivory gown and laid it across Jessies lap. The bottom half is pretty roomy but I thought the form fitting bodice would look nice especially since youre a good cup size larger now.

I dont suppose Mitch had anything to do with that, Jessie said dryly.

As a matter of fact he didnt, but he did get this sexy little gleam in his eyes when I showed it to him. We still have a few hours so I wouldnt suggest you put it on just yet

Liz, hehe wants to marry me today?

Why do you look so surprised, the man is crazy about you. If he had his way, youd have gotten married right here in the hospital wearing nothing but that God awful nightgown they made you put on.

But

But nothing, this is what youve been dreaming about for months. Ill leave you alone for a bit so you can take a shower then Ill be back to help you with your hair. Hank brought your robe and a small suitcase with some of your clothes so Ill just set them out before I

leave. Hopefully the old fool was smart enough to put some clean underclothes in there too. Your robe is hanging on the bathroom door. She took the gown and hung it back in the closet then helped Jessie out of bed. Im happy for you, Jess, hes a wonderful man.

He is wonderful. Hes more than any woman could ever hope for, and more than I deserve.

Dont sell yourself short, kiddo, youre Snow White incarnate and Mitch is Prince Charming. Youre living proof that fairy tales are real and dreams really do come true.

Jessie laughed so hard tears trickled down the sides of her cheeks. Ive apparently painted a rather rose colored picture of Mitch. She dabbed the tears from her eyes. Hes hardheaded, stubborn as a mule, possessive, over-protective, and

And you love him.

Yeah, she said with a dreamy smile, I love him more than anything in the world.

Well then, I suggest you go take that shower so youll be ready when he comes to sweep you off your feet.

***

Swept her off her feet is what he did, literally. Since it was supposed to be bad luck for the groom to see his bride in her gown before the wedding, Liz insisted that Jessie wear her bathrobe over it. She felt silly, but Mitch had been highly amused as scooped her into his arms and carried her out of the hospital. He was positively breathtaking in a dark suit and shiny black

cowboy boots and she barely took her eyes off of him during the drive into town. Fully expecting to be married at the courthouse in an abbreviated ceremony, Jessie nearly cried when they pulled up in front of the small church.

Mitch came around to the passenger side and lifted her out, lowering her feet gently to the ground. Im afraid its not going to be as grand as you deserve, but its the best I could do on short notice.

Oh, Mitch, its simply wonderful! Youre wonderful.

I wish I could take all the credit but I cant. I was all for bribing the minister into coming to the hospital to perform the ceremony, but my little sister said shed throttle me herself if I did that to you.

I think Im going to like your sister.

Heres your chance to find out, he nodded towards the church entrance. That wild looking young woman dashing down the stairs is Jill.

Mitchs sister was stunning to say the least. Hair as dark as his curled around a nymph like face and fell just past her shoulders. She was tall and slender and energy seemed to radiate from her as she bounded down the stairs and across the parking lot. A brilliant smile lit her face when she reached them and gave her brother a heartfelt hug.

Youre just as beautiful as Mitch described you, Jill said.

Her smile was infectious and Jessie couldnt help returning it. Im sure I look devastating in this robe.

Jill waved her hand in the air dismissively. Oh, Liz already told us she made you cover up. Come inside, everyone is waiting and Liz has the entire event on a time table. She looped her arm through Jessies as if theyd been friends for years and urged her towards the church. We only have an hour and half for both the ceremony and reception before youre banished to the ranch and your bedroom. She cast a sly glance at Mitch. As kind hearted and considerate as my brother is, Im sure he wont mind sacrificing his time to keep you company.

The next several minutes were a blur of activity as Jill shooed her brother off and whisked Jessie into a small room where Liz was waiting. Between the two women, they managed to rid her of her robe, brush out her hair, and have her standing in the hallway with a bouquet of flowers in a span of ten minutes. Jill kissed her on the cheek and hurried inside, cueing the organ music.

Liz gave her a big hug. You look gorgeous, Jess. I hope you dont mind, but I took the liberty of asking someone to take your fathers place in walking you down the aisle.

Jessies heart melted at the sight of Hank standing just outside the doorway looking quite handsome in his suit. I wouldnt have it any other way, she said with a smile.

Hank came forward and offered her his arm. He was crazy in love with you right from the start.

I suspect thats how you figured out he wasnt Adam.

That was the biggest clue. Not that Adam didnt care about you in his own way, but Mitch

I know, and I feel the same way he does.

What do you say we get this show on the road and put the poor boy out of his misery?

Jessie drew in a deep breath and let Hank escort her to the doorway of the chapel. There was a buzz of hushed praises and the flash of several cameras as everyone rose to their feet and turned to watch her walk down the aisle. Tears sprang to her eyes when she saw the brightly colored flowers and yards of white ribbon that adorned the pews. How Mitch managed to procure the church, get it decorated and gather so many of her friends from town in only one day, she wasnt sure but she was incredibly touched by the effort hed made. At the end of the aisle, the minister waited with a bible in his hand. Standing on one side of him was Liz and Jill, and on the other side, to her surprise, was Del.

Then Mitch stepped in front of the minister and everyone else faded from view. Shed never seen him quite so happy, and the way he was looking at her made her feel as if she was the most beautiful woman in the world. It was absurd, considering the sizeable bulge around her mid-section, but there it was in his eyes and the soft smile he wore. Liz was right. She was Snow White, he was Prince Charming, and dreams really did come true.

Hank released her when they reached the end of the aisle and took his place beside Del. She handed Liz the bouquet then took Mitchs hands and faced him, her heart racing madly in her chest and her knees so weak she wasnt sure shed be able to stand through the entire

ceremony. Then minister began to speak and she got lost in the depths of Mitchs eyes and the enormous love she felt for him. When it came time to exchange rings, she experienced a moment of panic. Liz, bless her heart, leaned forward and pressed a mans gold wedding band into her palm.

You owe me a prize bull for this, Liz whispered.

Jessie was still trying to suppress a giggle when Mitch took her hand. Oh, Mitch, she gasped when he started to slip the sparkling diamond ring over her finger.

Mitch pushed the ring snuggly in place. With this ring, I take you as my wife, my friend, my partner. I promise to love you always, to be faithful in both mind and body, to care for you, laugh with you, cry with you. I give you my heart, Jess, for all eternity.

Jessie blinked back the tears knowing the words were his own and not something the minister had given him to memorize. She took the ring Liz had given her and placed it on his finger. With this ring, I take you as my husband, my friend, my partner. I promise to stand by you, to trust in you always, and be a good and faithful wife. I love you, Mitch. Ive loved you from the moment you first took me in your arms and kissed me and Ill go on loving you forever.

Mitch slipped his arms around her waist and drew her into him. He lowered his head and stopped just before their lips touched, waiting impatiently for the minister to pronounce them husband and wife. When at last the words were spoken, he claimed her mouth with a searing kiss that caused quite a stir from their guests. Then with a rakish grin, he lifted her up into his arms

and carried her down the aisle amid happy smiles and hearty congratulations. Outside the church, he paused long enough to kiss her again.

Mrs. Kincaid, he said huskily. God, I thought this day would never come.

Jessie buried her face in his neck. I want you, Mitch. I want to go home and make love for hours and hours.

A low groan vibrated deep in his chest. Dont tempt me woman, Im very, very weak at this juncture. Theres a reception at the Bed and Breakfast in town but thanks to doctors orders it wont last long. If we hurry, we can beat the guests there and make out in the parking lot for a few minutes.

Jessie giggled as he hurried to his truck and settled her in the seat before rushing to the drivers side. She was gloriously happy and even the prospect of having to be on bed rest for the next two months couldnt dispel her good mood. Stealing a glance at her husband, she thought being confined to bed might not be so bad after all.

***

Oh, Mitch, she exclaimed when they entered the room where the reception was to be held.

Do you like it, sweetheart?

She left his side to wander through the room. How could she not like it? Shed dined at the Bed and Breakfast more times than she could count but never had she seen it look so

beautiful. The tables had all been draped with white table clothes and each was adorned with bouquets of flowers and white candles. Soft music played in the background and the tables had been arranged to allow room for dancing in the center of the room. Streamers decorated the walls and in one corner was a three tiered wedding cake. Jessie gaped at it in wonder.

How did youI mean, the church and the decorations and the cake She shook her head slowly. How could you possibly have done this all in one day?

Mitch came up behind her and wound his arms around her waist. After you fell asleep last night at the hospital I went and had a talk with the boys. They were all in the waiting area, every one of them looking as haggard as I felt. I told them the truth, Jess.

She turned in his arms, not at all sure she wanted to hear how theyd taken the news. What did they say?

Nothing at first. Then I told them how much I loved you and wanted to marry you. I asked how fast they thought they could help me throw a wedding together. He chuckled at how quickly theyd jumped on it. I think they were just so happy you and the babies were okay they would have agreed to anything. I left the arrangements for the reception up to them and incorporated Jill and Lizs help for the church and minister.

But the cake couldnt have been ordered and delivered that fast. How on earth did you manage that?

That was easy. All it took was one call to my mother. She throws some pretty lavish parties to raise money for charities so I was certain shed know someone who could whip it up in

one day. Mom and Dad flew in with the chef this morning so he could use the facilities here to make it.

Jessie stared at him in amazement. They flew a chef here just to make the cake? That must have cost a fortune andoh my God, youre parents are here?

Mitch laughed. Yes, darling, and theyre dying to meet you.

But Im big as a barn door and I look

Exceptionally beautiful, he said with a soft smile. Jess, they know what you did for Adam, and they know what youve done for me. Theyre delighted about the babies and the marriage.

Are you sure? I mean, they must think Im just horrible for falling in love with you so soon after Adams death.

They dont think anything of the sort. Jess, they loved Adam just as much as I did but none of us was blind to his faults. For whatever reason, he never wanted marriage or children, though you might have changed his mind about both if hed lived.

Jessie slipped her arms around his neck. No, Mitch, not even I could have done that.

You dont know that for sure.

I know this is hard to talk about. Ive had the same feelings of guilt you have about our relationship because it was Adams death that brought us together. But I honestly believe he would have been happy for us. He wasnt in love with me and I wasnt in love with him so

marriage was completely out of the question. As for children, it would have been impossible for Adam and me to conceive.

Why, because you were on birth control? He gave her a wry grin. That didnt seem to stop me from getting you pregnant.

Mitch, I was never on any kind of birth control.

He stared at her blankly. II dont understand.

There was no need with Adam. You see, he had a vasectomy a year before we met. He never wanted children. He thought it would be unfair given the life hed chosen.

He never told me. Is that when you became suspicious that I wasnt Adam?

At first I was just scared. Knowing about the vasectomy and still believing you were Adam, I thought you wouldnt believe the baby was yours. Thats really when I started to put it all together.

Mitch hugged her to him. Im glad everyone knows the truth now. As much as I wanted to be with you, I wasnt sure I could do it if I had to keep pretending to be Adam.

There wasnt time to say any more because the wedding guests had started to pile in. She wanted to finish the conversation, to learn more about what had made him do it in the first place, but that would have to wait. Theyd stay for the reception and then go back to the ranch, but she doubted they would have any further discussions tonight. Tonight all she wanted to do was make love with her husband and dream about the future.

Jessie stood on her toes and gave Mitch a kiss before turning to greet their guests. She was surprised to see that even more people had come for the reception than had attended the wedding and she imagined the boys had something to do with that. But as they filtered in, she was met with an even bigger surprise when they all addressed Mitch by his real name. She and Mitch exchanged curious glances repeatedly until the town gossip from the CO-OP clued them in.

Orin and his wife, Sally, entered the room carrying several packages with white wrapping and bright red bows. Sally beamed at Jessie. We wanted to be the first ones to give a gift to the bride and groom. Its mostly baby things, but I couldnt help myself once I started picking them out. She gave Mitch a knowing glance. And just for the record, I suspected right from the beginning you werent Adam. You can ask Orin, hell tell you. And then when Hank told us the little trick you two had played, I couldnt help but gloat about the fact Id really known all along.

Mitch and Jessie kept the smiles pasted on their faces though they didnt have a clue what Hank had said to the woman. So you werent fooled at all? Jessie couldnt help asking.

Not after he gave you that rather steamy kiss in our store, Sally laughed. Im just sorry you felt we wouldnt understand, Jessie. I mean, Im sure Adam had some very good qualities or you wouldnt have been with him for so long, but its quite obvious that Mitch is the man you were meant to fall in love with and marry.

Orin congratulated them and shuffled his wife into the room so the other guests could have their turn. There seemed to be a never ending stream of people and she was grateful for the

supporting arm Mitch wound around her about fifteen minutes into it. She was just beginning to worry that his parents had decided not to come to the reception after all when Jill shuffled in, sandwiched between an older version of Mitch and a stately dark haired woman who could only be their mother. Jessie was immediately intimidated by the womans refined elegance but when Jill introduced them, Catherine Kincaids face broke into a smile that was both welcoming and sincere.

Jessie, Im so pleased to finally meet you. Both of my boys have told me so much about you and I cant tell you how happy I am that at least one of them was smart enough to hang onto you.

Jessie was a little taken back by her bluntness. II want you to know I cared a great deal about Adam. Im sorry for your loss and hope you dont think less of me for falling in love with Mitch.

Catherine planted a warm kiss on her cheek. My dear, Adam died doing the one thing that truly made him happy; saving others. I know you cared deeply for him, as he did you, but I think we all know he never would have made a good husband. Judging by the way you and Mitch look at each other, Id say you two were meant to be together.

Mitchs father stepped forward and took her hand between both of his. Welcome to the family, Jessie. Mitch tells me youre going to give me a couple of grandsons.

She smiled warmly. Yes, I am. I just hope the little brutes dont decide to make an early appearance.

Mitchs arm tightened protectively. Which reminds me, I need to get Jessie off her feet. Would you two mind greeting the rest of the guests and point them to our table?

Not at all, dear, his mother said.

Jill stuck her lip out. What am I, chopped liver or something?

Mitch reached out and tweaked the end of her nose. You have an even more important job. Join us at the table and keep my wife from escaping while I fix up our plates.

Jessie jabbed him in the side. So now youre recruiting your family for guard duty?

Jill laughed. Come on, Jessie, while Mitch is fetching and carrying for us I can tell you all about the horrible things he used to do to me when we were children.

Jessie couldnt remember when shed had so much fun, even confined as she was to her chair. People flitted in and out, grabbing food from the buffet and stopping by to offer their congratulations and even gifts. The table beside them was overflowing in no time and before long they had to scoot a second table next to the first. Then came the toast, which was given jointly by Liz and Hank, followed by the cutting of the cake and their first dance as husband and wife.

Jessie was floating on a cloud as she gazed up into Mitchs eyes. Thank you for giving this to me. I never really thought I was the type of woman whod want flowers and streamers and a fancy cake, but now I realize I would have regretted it.

I had a lot of help and even though I wasnt thrilled with the idea at first, I have to admit I would have regretted it too. I love you, Jess.

I love you too. Were going to have a wonderful life together.

We already have a wonderful life together, it can only get better from here.

When the music ended, he led her back to the table where Liz and some of the boys were waiting. Liz tapped her watch. Your time was up fifteen minutes ago. Im sure the party will go on for a while longer, but everyone here knows Jess has been put on bed rest so theyll forgive you for ducking out early.

You told everyone? Jessie grumbled.

Yes, and you should be grateful I did. The ladies are organizing a schedule to make sure someone is out there to prepare meals for your men every day. Theyll also make sure the house is kept clean and any grocery shopping thats needed will get done.

And, Mitch added, my Mom and Dad are going to stay for a week to help take care of you and Jill wants to hang out until after the babies are born.

While I just lay there like a bump on a log, Jessie said grumpily.

Mitch leaned over, placing his hand lovingly on her belly. No, youll be diligently taking care of my sons.

She sighed in resignation. At least she couldnt say there would be a shortage of company. I guess I could take up knitting or something.

Hank rubbed his chin. Well now, if youve got your heart set on sewing, Ive got a few shirts that need mending.

Jessie smiled mischievously. Sure thing, Hank. I can use those little heart shaped patches to fix them up with.

Hank sputtered out a few cantankerous comments while the other men laughed and poked fun of him. When the noise finally settled down and Mitchs family came to join them, the conversation turned to the babies. Jessie described the nursery and was pretty sure she regained a few points with Hank when she told them how hed practically done the whole thing by himself.

We may have to expand it even more, Mitch said, eyeing all the gifts. I have a feeling Sally and Orin werent the only ones buying things for the babies.

Jill and I will help find a place for everything, his mother assured him. Have you two decided what to name my grandsons yet?

Jessie covered her mouth to stifle the giggle that bubbled up inside of her. With everything that had happened, shed totally forgotten to tell Mitch her fathers real name. Mitch on the other hand, was anything but amused. His jaw flexed and he was clenching his teeth, no doubt dreading the moment hed have to tell his parents that one of his sons would be named Buford Porterhouse Kincaid.

EPILOGUE
Jessie placed the flowers near the headstone then stood and enfolded herself in Mitchs arms. I miss him, she said solemnly.

We all do, sweetheart.

Do you think hed be happy to know we named one of the twins after him?

With his ego, are you kidding me?

Jessie couldnt help smiling. The two brothers certainly had more than looks in common. Mitch still hadnt lived down the embarrassing incident at their reception when hed blurted out that he just couldnt handle naming his son after her father. A decided hush had fallen over the room as everyone turned to stare at him in horror. John Buchanan had been well liked and respected in the community and Mitch had made it sound like some sort of corporal punishment to name his son after the man. To make matters worse, Jessie was having such a fit of giggles they all thought shed lost her mind.

IIm sorry, shed stammered to the crowd then turned to Mitch. I may have misled you just a little about my father. His name was Jonathan Nathaniel Buchanan.

But you said his name was Buford Porterhouse

The room had exploded with laughter and after a few seconds of mortified silence, Mitch had laughed too. When everyone had quieted down, hed given her a devilish grin that told her she was going to pay dearly. Even now the memory of their honeymoon night and the tortuous

ways hed paid her back brought color to her cheeks. If he hadnt been so concerned about the babies and Jessie getting the rest she needed, she doubted theyd have slept at all that night. She was just glad hed put his family up at the Bed and Breakfast for the two days following the wedding because there had been an inordinate amount of unintelligible mumbling and rather ardent praises to God coming from their bedroom.

The days and weeks leading up to the birth of their two sons had gone much faster than she imagined. Despite her appearance of grandeur, Catherine Kincaid was every bit as caring and kind hearted as Mitch and had fussed over Jessie almost as bad as he did. His parents had stayed for a week and during that time Jessie had grown quite fond of them. Shed also formed a very strong bond with Jill, partly because the young womans exuberance made it impossible not to like her but also because Jill had become the little sister she never had.

It was Jill whod been with her when the first contraction had hit. Shed paged Mitch, who was down at the barn helping Hank shoe horses that day, then calmly called Liz and asked her to meet them at the hospital. By the time her frantic husband made it up to the house, Jessies suitcase was already stashed in the back of the pickup and the keys were in the ignition. Mitchs willful sister had insisted on driving, pointing out that he was shaking so bad theyd all be lucky to make it to the hospital in one piece.

Four hours and twenty-three minutes later, Mitchell Allen Kincaid, Jr. was born. Six minutes later his twin brother, Adam Ryan Kincaid made his appearance. To his credit, Mitch had staunchly remained by her side during the entire delivery, though she noticed Liz was keeping a close eye on him. The look of pure adoration on his face when theyd placed his first born son in his arms had brought tears to her eyes. Hed barely had time to settle Mak, as they

called him, in Jessies arms before Adam was handed to him. That night after the nurse had taken the babies back to the nursery Mitch had kicked off his boots and crawled into the narrow bed with her. It was quite a squeeze, but shed never felt happier in her life as she curled up in his arms and fell into an exhausted sleep.

Shed been released from the hospital two days later, only one week before Christmas. Once again Mitch had called in the troops to perform a miracle and Jessie had been reduced to a blubbering idiot when they pulled up to house and shed spotted the Christmas lights along the roof and the giant candy canes that led the way up the walk. His mother and Jill had rushed out to take possession of the babies while his father held the door open so Mitch could carry her into the house. Hed settled her on the sofa in the living room, quite proud of the Christmas tree he and Hank had cut down and helped decorate.

Christmas morning, Jessie had woken up early to discover she was all alone in the big bed. Slipping on a robe, shed gone to the nursery to check on the babies and found Mitch sitting in his rocker with a sleeping son nestled in each arm and a huge, satisfied grin on his face. Nothing had ever moved her as deeply as the sight of her big, strapping husband cradling their tiny forms so protectively.

I changed and fed them already, hed said proudly when she leaned over to press a kiss to each babys forehead.

Shed been using a breast pump so he could share the responsibility of feeding and though she was a little disappointed shes missed out that morning, she didnt have the heart to

take anything away from Mitch when he was so obviously thrilled for having accomplished it on his own. His gaze fell lovingly on one son and then the other before lifting to look at her.

You realize this is our first Christmas as a family? I want more, Jess, at least two more; baby girls who look just like you, and maybe a couple more sons if you can handle it. And I want a dog, one of those Golden Retrievers or maybe a German Shepherd for the boys and maybe a few kittens for the girls. Of course, well have to do some renovations and add some bedrooms but

Jessie laughed softly. Good Lord, how early did you get up? You must have been planning for hours. Four or five children, a dog and kittens, remodeling the house, thats quite an order to fill.

He looked blissfully happy at that moment. Weve got a lifetime to do it in, sweetheart, an entire lifetime.

A lifetime wouldnt be long enough to spend with Mitch, she thought as they left the gravesite and drove back to his parents house. Theyd flown up three days earlier so they could all be together on the third anniversary of Adams death but Jessie and Mitch had remained behind while his parents took the twins back with them. Every year since theyd been married theyd come to lend support to his mother and father and though visiting the grave was hard on them all, uniting as a family to tell stories of Adams wild escapades helped ease the pain of his loss.

By the time they got back to the house, Catherine and Jill had the twins settled down for an afternoon nap. It helped to have the rambunctious little boys around to take their minds off the

reason for the gathering and Jessie couldnt help feeling that their birth had been a blessing in more ways than one. Inevitably, the sorrow that filled their hearts after visiting Adams grave was lifted by the gleeful laughter from their sons as they raced around their grandparents house. Tears dried, smiles replaced frowns, spirits lifted. And though she hadnt told anyone yet, next year the somber moods would be even more difficult to hang on to because there would be two additional distractions.

Ive got something I want to show you, Mitch said as they climbed the stairs to his old room.

Jessie grinned. Ive seen it before and as impressive as it is, Im not sure now is an appropriate time to show it to me again.

That wasnt what I was referring to Mrs. Kincaid, although its very tempting with the boys down for the count for the next few hours. He closed the door behind them and asked her to sit on the bed while he went to the closet and dug in his duffle bag and procured Adams journal. Sitting down beside her, he drew in a deep breath before pressing it into her hands. This was Adams. I suppose I should have let you read it long before now, but I guess a part of me didnt want you to know how deeply Adam felt for you.

Why? Did you think it would change the way I feel about you?

Mitch kept his eyes glued to the floor. The thought crossed my mind. I think I was afraid some of what you felt for me would be transferred back to Adam. It sounds kind of stupid now, selfish even, but I couldnt help it

Jessie clutched the journal in her hands. It had been years since shed even thought of it. It didnt change a thing as far as you and I were concerned, but it did make me feel better to know Id made a difference in his life.

He looked up at her in surprise. You read it?

Most of it. I admit I was snooping for something that would give me a clue about your strange behavior so when I found the journal I started reading a few pages here and there. After we were married, it became a part of my past and reading it just made me too sad.

So you never actually got to the last entry?

No.

Mitch took the journal from her. Id like to read the last thing Adam wrote. It was dated just a few days before that last mission . After reading it, I decided it was time to tell you the truth but then Jud showed up and beat me to the punch. He opened the journal and read the entries telling of Adams misgivings about the mission then turned to the last page.

Whether I make it back from this mission or not, Ive made up my mind to let Jessie go. Somehow Ill convince Mitch he needs to go to her and from there Im sure nature will take its course. Somewhere deep inside I guess Ive always known theyd make a better match than Jessie and I ever could, but Id come to rely on her too much to jeopardize it by letting them meet. I realize now how selfish Ive been; they both deserve to find happiness and Ive kept it from them long enough. Mitch never really liked being a Special Ops agent, but he did it for me. And Jessie gave up the dream of marriage and children because she knew how much I

needed her. The two people I love most in this world sacrificed a part of their lives to keep me sane and whole and happy. Now its my turn to give back.

Mitch, if youre reading this it means I never made it back. I understand the grieving process; God knows Ive gone through it enough times to know. Youll be hurting and want to run off by yourself, just as Jessie will. But Im asking you, for both your sakes, go to her, comfort her, love her as I should have. I told you once that when I was broken I went back to her, that Jessie fixed it and made me whole again. Now I have to ask myself, who will be there to fix Jessie when shes broken? Take care of her for me, Mitch, and let her take care of you. Find strength in your love for each other.

Mitch closed the journal and set it on the nightstand, choking back the pain. He knew one of us wasnt going to make it back. He was safe, Jess. If he hadnt come back for me His voice broke; he thought maybe his heart had too.

Dont do this to yourself, Mitch. You know how Adam was; you couldnt have stopped him if youd tried. I think he knew full well what he was doing when he came back for you, and it wasnt just to save your life, Mitch, it was to save mine too. He knew youd never quit being an agent and that Id never give up on him, which meant none of us would ever truly be happy. Dont you see, he died so that we could live. Adam saved you for me, for the future he knew we could have together, for those little boys in the room next door, and for She stopped abruptly. This wasnt exactly how shed planned on breaking the news, but it was too late now because Mitch was giving her a curious look.

Finish what you were saying, Jess.

For this, Mitch. She took his hand and placed it on her belly. This is what he died for. So you and I could fall in love and get married and have children who would carry on the Kincaid name. She smiled softly. Of course, these two wont be any help with that. Jessie waited for him to put it together.

Twins again? Girls? Joy surged through his heart when she nodded. Oh, Jess, Jess.

He eased her back onto the bed, kissing and caressing and ultimately making love to her. Afterwards they held to each other, doing as Adam had asked; drawing strength from their love for one another. He missed his brother fiercely, but having Jessie and his sons helped fill the void left by Adams death. And now there would be two more precious lives to ease the pain, two beautiful little girls who would live and laugh and love because Adam had decided his brothers life was worth more than his own.

***

Thank God, Jessie sighed.

Mitch wasnt quite as happy about it as she was. Are you sure, Liz? Maybe you should do another ultrasound.

Sorry, Mitch, but this babys flying solo. She laughed at the hang dog look he gave her. Look, theres nothing wrong with having one child at a time, most people do you know.

I know, its just that

Liz arched a brow. What?

Jessie slipped her hand into his. He likes having two at a time so he gets to have just as much time feeding and taking care of them as I do.

Quite frankly, I dont know how you two even find the time toconceive. Mak and Adam are what, six now? That makes Jillian and Johanna three, so I know youve got your hands full.

They have to sleep some time, Mitch grinned. And you have to admit, we make beautiful children together.

You wont get any argument from me on that. Now, you two know the routine. She handed Jessie a prescription. Go pick up the pre-natal vitamins, no heavy lifting, get lots of rest, and with any luck you wont end up on bed rest the last two months of this pregnancy.

After making a quick stop at the pharmacy, they headed back to the ranch. Shed gotten so used to taking the SUV because of all the children, it was nice riding in Mitchs truck and being able to sit right next to him. She couldnt help smiling as he nodded and waved to people they knew as they drove through town. Everyone who knew Mitch liked and respected him, including the two men whod once considered him an enemy; Jud and Del. Jud was still single, still playing the field and making a killing in the cattle industry, but nowadays he also acted as a business consultant and Mitch had been his first client.

As for Del, hed accepted Mitchs proposal to move into the old Sinclair ranch and run the place for them shortly after shed had Mak and Adam. Three years later, Del married the local librarian and they now had two children of their own. As a wedding gift, she and Mitch had

deeded two hundred acres of the Sinclair ranch to Del so he and his wife could build a house of their own. They were due to start construction in the spring.

Mitch had pretty much taken over running their own ranch, though he never strayed too far from the house if he could help it. He loved playing Daddy and was in his element whenever he was with her and the children. And if he did have occasion to leave for more than a few hours, he always made sure Hank was left behind to watch over his family. Jessie didnt mind. Shed gotten used to Mitchs over-protective nature and the children all adored Hank. It was actually quite amusing to watch him with the kids because a metamorphosis seemed to occur whenever they were around. Gone was the crotchety old man who barked when he talked and spouted colorful expletives and bawdy stories. In his place was a surrogate grandfather who played hide and seek and read fairytales and who doted on each and every one of them as if they were the most precious things on earth. Of course, Jessie was a little prejudiced on that last score because to her they were the most precious things on earth.

Her life was just about as close to perfect as it could get. She had a husband who loved her, four beautiful children and another one on the way, and shed been ensconced within the loving circle of Mitchs family as if shed always been there and belonged. Both ranches were doing well so money was never an issue, and she was doing what she did best; fixing things. With as many children as they had, there was always someone with hurt feelings that needed to be salved, a boo boo that needed a band-aid or a kiss, a toy that needed to be put back together. Her life was full and rich and she was blissfully happy and Jessie thought no woman could have ever asked for more. In her lifetime, Jessie's heart had been entwined with two

extraordinary men; one who had loved her enough to let her go, and another who loved her so much he couldnt.