El Paso, Texas. 1895. Five years ago, life as Jacy Kimble knew it came to an end. Her brother Hunter and his best friend Trevor Fallon were sent to Yuma Prison for murder. The scandal cost her family their Arizona ranch, ruined her father’s political career, and even took his sanity.
Once the belle of Arizona society, Jacy was haughty and flirtatious, especially with Trevor Fallon. But she can’t believe her eyes when the handsome cowhand shows up at her door with an incredible story: He was freed in the middle of the night with orders—to clear her brother’s name and keep him from hanging.
For five years she has hated Trevor, blaming him for her brother’s fate. Should she believe him now? It’s a hard choice for Jacy: trust the man who ruined her life, or throw away any hope for her family’s future. Complicating everything, she feels her powerful attraction for Trevor returning. How can she put herself in harm’s way again? How can she not?
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El Paso, Texas Two weeks later
By midmorning Jacy Kimble was certain that everything that could go wrong in one day, had. Exhausted from lack of sleep and the oppressive summer heat, she was edgy, angry, and short of patience. But when in the last five years hadn't she been edgy, angry, and short of patience?
Wearily, she glanced around the single adobe room that served as living area for seven people. With two attached rooms for sleeping, the old stage station was a far cry from the comfort and luxury the Kimbles had taken for granted before they were run out of Arizona in disgrace.
Before their lives fell apart. Before her brother Hunter was convicted of murder and sent to Yuma Prison to die.
Before her father, Drummond, on the verge of being elected governor of Arizona Territory, lost his ranch and livelihood and social standing, and the once politically influential Kimbles were forced to forsake everything they knew and loved.
Now Drummond was on the brink of losing something else — his mind, which left this menagerie of relatives — father, sister-in-law, two nephews, one niece — in Jacy's charge. Unprepared for the myriad responsibilities she faced daily, she had become a shrew. She knew she had. And she hated it.
Today was the final straw. Drummond hadn't returned from yesterday's drinking binge in El Paso and someone must go after him.
As if that weren't enough, TÃa Bella, Jacy's sister-in-law's aunt with whom the homeless family had come to live, had run off with several letters that must go out on the noon mail wagon.
And who was here to help? Marielena, Jacy's sister-in-law on whom she should have been able to rely, had gone on her daily pilgrimage to Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Ysleta Mission.
When Jacy confronted her earlier, Mari had listened meekly. Slight of build with delicate features and luminous black eyes, Mari was now gaunt, her lovely face drawn in at the cheeks. The black mantilla covering her taut black bun added to her aura of austerity. The once sparkling, lively Mari had lost all spark. Her only concern was to save Hunter from hanging. Her method, prayer.
On this morning Mari firmly refused to forego Mass to search for either Drummond or her own aunt, TÃa Bella, who was entirely too doddering to serve as postmistress of the little settlement of Concordia — which added another responsibility to Jacy's growing heap.
"Todd can look for his grandfather before school," Mari explained, speaking of her and Hunter's eldest. At the impressionable age of thirteen, Todd had no business being sent to the seedier sections of El Paso. Or so his Aunt Jacy believed.
"I can't miss Mass," Mari continued, pleading. "With the news we received yesterday, Jacy ..."
The news. Trevor Fallon escaped from Yuma Prison.
Jacy turned away from her stricken sister-in-law. Her concern was the same as Mari's — to save Hunter from hanging — even if her method was more worldly and, to her mind, more practical. That, however, did not make Jacy less vulnerable. How long could she continue to carry this family on her shoulders? She yearned to throw off the yoke, to run away. To go home.
Home. If only for a moment. Home, where she would be free of this burden. She wasn't cut out for hardship or even for leadership. Things were supposed to be —
'"If Hunter escaped with Trevor —" Mari was saying.
Jacy turned on her. "Stop this foolishness, Mari. Hunter did not escape. We would have heard by now."
"But what if they ... what if they punished him for Trevor's escape?"
Trevor. Trevor. Trevor. Jacy wanted to scream. Trevor's escape. Trevor's betrayal. They had all suffered for that man's treachery.
"Don't think about it, Mari. I've told you time and again, we cannot afford to worry about things we can't control. We'll go crazy, if we do."
With the promise to find TÃa Bella after Mass, Mari left for the cathedral and Jacy began sacking the mail, minus the letters TÃa Bella had filched. Not that TÃa Bella was a thief.
Like with Drummond, Jacy knew where to find the old lady — at Concordia Cemetery reading someone else's mail to her dearly departed husband. Which, on consideration, Jacy realized, was the best possible person to whom to read someone else's mail, if read it, one must.
At least three letters were missing today. Jacy tried to remember who, of the handful of people who still used this tiny station as a mail drop, had brought them in. Would they complain?
At her wits' end, when a shadow fell over her desk, she glanced up swiftly, expecting Pedro, the bony old mail carrier. It wasn't Pedro.
Her heart stopped. The bottom fell out of her stomach. Trevor.
She felt herself sway. Quickly, as if to banish the specter, she returned her attention to the desk. The mail had to go out. The mail wagon would arrive soon, and several letters were lost.
From the doorway, Trevor watched Jacy turn away, flustered. He knew the feeling. The sight of her shook him to the toes of his new boots. In that first moment all he wanted was to look at her. Feast your eyes took on a whole new and excruciatingly sensual meaning. His hunger for her was so great, he had to grasp the overhead door frame of the aged adobe station to hold himself in place. The hunger grew insidiously, the craving to cross this earthen-floored room and grab her and kiss her and strip those worn clothes from her body and make love to her.
Like in his dream.
Which, after all, was all it had been, a dream. One glance around this decaying old building told Trevor he had stepped into reality. Dismal as the surroundings were, though, Jacy's appearance was even more devastating. Flaxen hair that he remembered waving around her shoulders was pulled back from her face into a tight knot low on her nape.
The hairstyle emphasized her high-cheekboned, sculptured face and drew her once sun-kissed skin taut. Fine lines etched her temples to either side of crystal blue eyes and furrowed her brow. Her hands were rough and raw, the tapered nails mere stubs.
And her clothing — supple doeskin riding outfits and rustling silk dresses had been replaced by peasant attire — a dull, once-white blouse and faded black skirt. All of which should have validated his earlier prediction.
"One day, Miss Fancy Pants," he told her more than once, "you'll get your comeuppance."
To which Jacy merely tossed that glorious mane of hair and laughed, taunting him like a regal mare would taunt the stallion of the herd. Of course, the comeuppance Trevor had in mind had nothing to do with losing her livelihood, her home, or having her brother convicted of murder.
The comeuppance he envisioned was purely sensual and had been strengthened by five years in a lonely cell with nothing but memories and dreams and fantasies. Never in the wildest of those dreams had he pictured Jacy Kimble, the sweetheart of Arizona Territory, living in an old stage station in near-poverty. Swallowing the bitter taste of guilt, he forced himself to step into the small room, forced himself not to turn and run.
Run. From this dismal scene for which he felt all too responsible, all too guilty. Guilt wasn't new to Trevor. He had lived with it most of his thirty-five years. It hadn't begun with Jacy Kimble. Nor, he realized, would it end with her. But the guilt he felt over Jacy's downfall was stronger than anything he had felt since his mother's death. And guilt, as always, led to resentment, which burned now like a coal in his gut.
When he moved across the earthen floor, Jacy glanced up again. Her blue eyes brimmed with angry defiance. He stopped midway to the desk, arrested by the strength of his sundry emotions. Guilt and desire mixed and curdled in his belly.
He and Jacy had never been in love, he reminded himself. And he hadn't come here to rekindle the passion they had only begun to explore that fateful day five years earlier. He had come to seek her help in saving her brother's life.
Hunter, the best friend he ever had. The defiance in Jacy's eyes warned him that enlisting her help, even for Hunter, would be an uphill battle all the way.
If looks could kill, he would have been better off heading for Mexico. But hadn't he always had a way of bringing Jacy Kimble down to earth?
"What's the matter, Jace? Don't you remember me?" He strove for his old indolence, fell short, and prayed she didn't notice.
Remember him? How could she have forgotten him? How could any of them have forgotten? The sight of him left her weak.
Weak and struggling to disguise the fact. Miraculously, some small part of her brain retained its mooring, for she stood her ground. She neither grasped the desk for support nor sank to the chair in a swoon.
Nor did she throw herself in his arms, which in that initial, startling moment was all she could think of doing.
Trevor was here. A burden seemed to literally slip from her shoulders, like a topcoat unneeded with the arrival of spring.
Trevor had come. She was no longer alone. For such a long time she had been alone. Suddenly she couldn't remember ever not being alone. And whose fault was that?
The man's standing before her!
Gaining composure, she demanded, "What do you want?" Compelled by an insanity that was beyond her control, she surveyed his familiar shape, finding him rangy yet strong, undiminished by five years in prison. His skin was sun-bronzed, rather than prison-pale — two weeks on the run, she decided. His bold blunt features were so familiar they warmed her against her will. A resurgence of the old glow started deep inside and seeped into her pores with the same insidious urgency as long ago. Like a sponge, she absorbed the warmth in his brown eyes and felt herself grow deliciously light-headed. His teasing, slightly mocking tone soothed her with an old familiar challenge.
"Ah, Jace, what do I want? Where should I start?"
That voice, deep and softly seductive, bathed her like a warm summer rain. His gaze was steady and only for her. She felt again, as she had so long ago, the magnetism of this man. She was drawn to him; always had been. As he had been drawn to her. Incredibly, she saw herself reflected in his expression — her fears, her dreams, her hope.
Hope, when for the last five years hope had been dashed so many times it finally died. She hadn't forgotten this man, far from it. Now, looking into his eyes, she knew the reason why. And she saw in his intense, all-absorbing gaze, that he knew, too.
There was something yet unfinished between them. Unfinished and clamoring for attention. Unfinished, it hummed in the dry desert air, provocative and insidiously tempting.
He stood before her clad in denim and chambray, hands anchoring his hips. It was a familiar stance, as if he had just ridden in from the north pasture and stopped to say hello. Without breaking eye contact, he lifted a hand and ran those strong fingers through his brown hair. Another familiar gesture, revealing his vulnerability, even as he so adeptly hid it.
A familiar gesture. A familiar hand. A familiar shiver raced down her spine. As though she had stepped into the past, she felt that hand touch her face.
Then she saw the scar. Her trembling took on a new and frightening cast. The court claimed the wound on his forehead was irrefutable proof of Trevor's guilt. The prosecutor went so far as to produce the weapon with which it had been carved.
A diamond-studded gold brooch, belonging to the deceased, Ana Bowdrie, a gift from her paramour of many years, Drummond Kimble.
Now, five years later the wound had healed and was faded to a misshapen scar that looked more like the letter T than anything else. T for Trevor, she thought. A brand.
T for Traitor. When she looked into Trevor's eyes again, she shivered. His earlier warmth had turned cold and cynical, as it had in court so long ago. She found her voice and it trembled, but not with uncertainty.
"Get out." Even as she spoke the words, however, she knew they were wrong. She couldn't send him away, not yet. "Wait." When he lifted a brow, questioning, she asked tersely, "How is Hunter?"
Trevor had watched her take in him. Beneath her defiance, he saw the old compelling fascination and knew her desire for him was still as strong and hot as his was for her. Then her gaze found the scar.
The brand. For one foolish split second his dream flashed to mind — Jacy stroking the scar, saying she understood, professing her love.
In case he needed convincing, here was proof positive. Jacy Kimble did not understand. Would never understand. As for love, he had been right about that all along. Jacy loved no one but herself, with the possible exception of her brother and ol' moneybags papa.
Haughty Miss Fancy Pants stared at him as though he had just crawled out of a snake hole. Which only went to show she didn't remember everything about him. She wouldn't get the time of day from him with that kind of behavior.
With an insolent shrug and half a grin, he turned to leave. She exploded on cue.
"I can see prison didn't do you much good." How dare he not cooperate? That insolent grin sent fury flashing through her like fire through dry sage. Added to the sweltering desert heat, it left her hot enough to incinerate. She hated this man. "You're the same arrogant son of a bitch as always."
"And you're the same sweet an' sour Miss Fancy Pants." He grinned again, just to rile her. Lord how he'd missed their spats. He glanced from cracked adobe to earthen floor then back to her. "Fallen on hard times, looks like."
His baiting tone vibrated along Jacy's nerve endings. She ignored the anticipation that raged inside her. Trevor Fallon had once been a worthy adversary. Now he was much more than an adversary. Now he was her number one enemy.
"Proud of yourself?" She gestured around the hovel. "This is only partial evidence of your villainy. But don't count me out. I won't be down forever." Through clenched teeth, she demanded, "Tell me about Hunter, then get the hell out of my life."
"That's why I'm here."
Without warning his tone had changed from insolent to serious. Jacy caught her breath. Fear swept through her.
"I don't know how Hunter is," Trevor added. "He's still in prison, or was two weeks ago."
"When you escaped," she hissed. "Didn't you know you would put him in danger by escaping? Didn't it occur to you that they might retaliate on him?"
Trevor froze. "What are you talking about?"
Jacy watched distress tighten the already taut skin along his jaw line. His chiseled features were too masculine to be considered handsome in the classical sense, but Trevor Fallon was nevertheless the most physically attractive man she had ever known. Five years' absence had heightened the mystique that always surrounded him. She had tried to convince herself his appeal lay in the fact that he was her father's hired hand, thus forbidden to her by the society from which she was expected to select a mate.
But the emotions she experienced now had nothing to do with dangerous and forbidden love affairs. Her emotions now were simple and pure, entirely too simple and pure. Need. The insidious need to reach out and touch him. To lay her face on his chest. To feel his heart beat against her face, to feel his lips on hers.
She saw none of this reflected in his own expression, however, only concern, and it looked sincere. Why not? He called Hunter his best friend, the best friend he ever had. And Hunter felt the same. Which made Trevor's final betrayal so much more bitter.
"What have you heard?" he demanded.
"Nothing," she bit off. "But it stands to reason — "
"Nothing about this case stands to reason, Jace. If you weren't so blinded by trying to convict me of that damned murder, you would know that by now. Something is going on inside Yuma Prison." Spoken aloud, the claim rang false. "Or out here," he mended. "Whatever, Hunter is in serious trouble."
"Serious trouble?" she scoffed. "How much more serious can it get than being sentenced to hang for a murder he didn't commit?"
Trevor glared at her, wishing he could shake some of that pomposity out of her, wishing at the same time he didn't have to be so blunt. "Being hanged for that murder, Jace." Bluntness was the only tool he could come up with at the moment. "Or for some reason," he added.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "But I didn't escape. They set me free." He watched skepticism glaze her eyes. In a flash it turned to hatred. The same hatred he had seen on her face day after day in court. Until he finally stopped looking at her. Somehow her hatred had been the hardest of all to take.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Branded"
Copyright © 1997 Jane Vaughan.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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