“Stop staring at me,” Delia said.
He glanced over his shoulder to find her still glaring into the refrigerator. “I’m not even looking at you.”
“You are so.”
He smiled then, because they were both obviously tired, cranky and…well, he didn’t want to think about what else they were. Because whatever it was, they were it together and he didn’t want anything to do with it.
“Why don’t you just leave?” She was again looking into the refrigerator, scowling hard, as if she could find the answers to world peace and hunger, but it was her voice that reached him. She sounded confused and hurt, and he had an insane urge to soothe her.
“You know I can’t,” he said, wishing yet again that he could.
She pushed at a jar of mayonnaise and peered behind it, searching. “You’ve proven Zoe isn’t the heir.”
“Which still leaves you and Maddie.”
She pulled out an apple and examined it, then rejected it. “Not me. You know it’s not me.”
“I know no such thing.”
“My father was a cop.” Her fingers turned white with their death grip on a bottle of soda. “An undercover cop who never knew of my existence, remember? You yourself found this out just last week when you tracked down my so-called birth mother and found out that she was dead.”
Because he sensed the fragile hold she had on her emotions, he stayed where he was and said quietly, “Yes, I remember.” He also remembered how she’d looked when he’d told her, the shattered emotions that had swum in her expressive eyes when she’d realized her mother was gone forever, the mother who’d left her in a foster home.
She didn’t look shattered now, but with the tears wiped away, she looked strong. Fiercely independent. And despite himself, admiration filled him for her ability to roll with the punches life had thrown her.
He, more than anyone, knew exactly how painful those punches could be.
“And Constance ’s no-good jerk of a son was a drifter,” she continued. “Not a cop. So really, I couldn’t be her granddaughter.”
“I don’t think your mother was real good at truths, Delia,” he said gently.
That had her snapping her gaze back to his, but when she spoke, it was not with the heat of temper, but with the slow precision that only pain and sorrow could bring. “I’d like to be able to deny that.”
It was a surprising admission from a woman who’d been very careful to keep herself hidden from him. He understood perfectly, as the attempt was mutual. “I’m on the case until I have answers.”
She muttered something, but he missed it. When he raised a brow in question, she sighed with exasperation.
“I said thank you for finding my half brother.”
Given how she’d ground out each word, especially the “thank you” part, Cade knew how difficult the words had been. For some reason, this lightened his mood, made him want to grin. “I’m sorry…what was that?” He ignored her growl of frustration and cupped a hand to his ear, giving her an innocent smile.
“Thank you,” she said again through her teeth. Then she swallowed, hard, and all traces of resentment vanished. Her voice and expression softened. “I didn’t even know Jacob existed and I owe you for that. I’m going next week to Los Angeles to meet him for the first time and…”
“And I’m grateful, okay?”
She looked close to tears again, which he couldn’t take. Cocking his head, he ran his gaze over the body that could make a grown man beg and gave a wicked smile designed to claw at her temper. “How grateful?” he asked.
For a second she gaped at him before her composure returned. It was fascinating to watch.
She was fascinating to watch.
Without a word, she sauntered past him, chin high, walking regally from the kitchen into the recesses of the dark house.
Which left him alone.
That was nothing new. He was always alone.
Learning to ride. Oh, the joy of it. Not.
The day stretched out before Delia, glorious and cloud-free. Good thing, too, because though it was only October, they’d been battered by a series of storms, and she was already a little tired of the bone-numbing cold.
She was also tired of worrying.
There was so much, she didn’t know where to start. She worried about Maddie and Zoe and how hard they had to work. She worried about her newly found little brother, living far away in Los Angeles with a distant aunt, because no one had known to contact her. She worried about this big bad wilderness she was living in, when all she knew were shopping malls and Thai takeout. She worried about-
Him. She worried about him.
Silently cursing her sisters’ good humor-which had included this so-called riding lesson, courtesy of one Cade McKnight-she shifted in her saddle and looked into Cade’s mischievous eyes. As always, her heart skipped a beat, which annoyed her since her heart never skipped a beat over something as simple as a male.
“You’re not paying attention,” he said. “You’re letting that horse have her way.”
“I am not.” But good old Betsy betrayed her, bending her long neck down to graze. Delia turned away from Cade’s laughing gaze, trying to no avail to pull on Betsy’s reins.
The horse continued to graze peacefully.
“Try harder. With authority.”
Delia did…and broke a nail. She gritted her teeth and pulled harder.
Chewing complacently, Betsy twisted her neck and gazed balefully at Delia, but when she finished her mouthful, she didn’t go for more. Instead, she shifted, as if considering taking off for a nice long run.
Delia’s eyes widened slightly, her only concession to alarm. “Stop,” she demanded of the suddenly restless Betsy, the gentlest horse on the Triple M.
Cade reached over and stroked Betsy’s nose. “Shh, baby, it’s okay.”
“I know I’m okay.” Delia said. “Talk to the horse!”
“I was.” Cade grinned when Delia made a sound of frustration. “But you’re looking pretty okay, too. Baby.”
She rolled her eyes and looked away. Anywhere but at Cade.
They were still on Triple M property, but far enough from the house and barns that the vast land before her felt like another world. The hills were dotted with early frost, and the Salmon River raged more loudly than her thoughts. There wasn’t a freeway, let alone a car, in sight. No smog, no sirens, nothing. And to make it worse, she was sitting on a horse. A horse, for God’s sake.
She missed her city.
Cade’s lips curved as he tipped his head, studying her. A lock of wavy dark hair fell into his eyes, eyes that always seemed to see right through her icy calm to the Delia she didn’t want exposed.
“You’re thinking of your message,” he said.
“The judge finally reviewed your request for custody of Jacob. You have a hearing set for next month.”
Her greatest hope and terror all mixed into one. Oh, she definitely wanted Jacob, but what made her think Jacob wanted her?
Cade was watching her closely now, and she returned his stare with one of her own. He was tall and built like an athlete, with powerful muscles born more from physical labor than any gym. With the sun behind him, every one of those muscles was outlined beneath his dark T-shirt, along with the ones in his long legs, which were encompassed in faded snug denim. And every one of those muscles was tense as he sat in the saddle looking at her. “This is good news, remember?”
He bent closer, peering into her face. “Then where’s the smile?”
Baring her teeth, she gave the smile her best shot.
His big body shifted back, but he still watched her with that probing gaze.
As if he knew.
She assured herself that her secret fear was safe. No one must know that she was afraid and ashamed that she might be found lacking, not good enough to gain custody of her half brother.
But as she looked into Cade’s melting brown eyes, eyes that were filled with questions, she swallowed hard.