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Prologue

 

 

 

His son was dead. Gone.

A victim of his own stupidity and youth and baser urges. Clive understood that. He wasn’t a stupid man, nor was he blind to the ways of the world. His boy Jay had never been the best sort, nor had he been the brightest.

Dog mean, some had said about his younger son. His real son. His blood.

Clint was just the bastard his wife, Paula, had foisted on him the day they’d wed. He’d given the boy his name out of duty and obligation. Because the father of that boy had been his own brother, who’d taken off into the hills when Paula had said she was pregnant. Women in Masterson, Wyoming, were hard to come by. He’d taken the first woman he could stand talking to who knew her way around the bedroom.

He hadn’t truly regretted it. Paula had been a riot to play with. Always up for an adventure in the sack, too.

Ovarian cancer had taken her out of the world, and his life, when the boy she’d given him had been all of sixteen months old.

He’d had the raising of Jay and his older stepson, Clint, ever since. Jay had made some missteps along the way, but Clive had never expected his boy to end up like this.

His boy hadn’t deserved to suffer like he had there at the end. No human being did. Hell, not even a dog deserved this.

Jay had made mistakes, but his boy had died in pain. No amount of drugs could completely dull the pain of the burns that would never have healed. Or the pain of losing the girl Jay had wanted.

That it was his boy’s fault for setting the fire mattered little.

Those damned Masterson boys should have gotten Jay out faster than they had. It would have been the right thing to do.

Why couldn’t they have done the right thing to do?

Clive collapsed next to his son’s hospital bed as the tears almost destroyed him.

Jay hadn’t deserved to die this way. Not because of some damned girl. It just wasn’t right. Jay had deserved better.

 

 

 

 

 

1.

 

 

 

Nathaniel Masterson, head of the Masterson County Hospital, waited around the small ER until the woman he needed finally showed up. She’d been somewhere in the back of the small ward, helping with an MVA patient who’d needed her mother. The mother was currently in ICU with a very cautious prognosis.

It had been a longer night than he even wanted to think about. But everyone would live, barring any complications.

And he—they—still had a forty-minute drive to the ranches where they lived. He checked his watch. Nate had moved Persephone Tyler—his nemesis and thorn in side—to the later afternoon/early evening shift months ago. He’d had her on three p.m. to three a.m. but that had had to change.

It was just too dangerous for a woman to be out that late.

Even in Masterson County.

Recent events in the town that had nearly killed all three of his brothers—and all three of Perci’s sisters—had made that abundantly clear to him.

Nate wanted Perci on the same shift he was on.

Easier for him to keep an eye on the little trouble magnet that way. Trouble just had a way of finding her.

She was the type of woman a smart man never turned his back on. That man had to keep his wits about him at all times.

Nate was stuck with her as a major part of his life; she was sister to all three of his sisters-in-law. He adored the three other Tyler women. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for the women his brothers loved.

That meant Perci was his responsibility when at the hospital. More so than anyone else, though he took the safety of the rest of his staff seriously, as well.

But Persephone Tyler…Perci was his to watch over. He’d felt that way about her from the very beginning. Long before her sisters had captivated his brothers.

He’d known her and wanted her long before they had ever met her sisters.

Nate found himself wanting to watch her far more than a smart man should.

She dragged in, fatigue clear in her Tyler blue eyes. And limping. He’d heard the story—one of her patients tonight had had a massive seizure. The man was nearly as big as Nate; Perci had been knocked to the floor during the event. She’d done some damage to a not-quite healed fracture in her leg she’d suffered recently.

He’d told her a week ago she should have still been in the cast. But she’d insisted it come off.

She would never complain, especially to him. He called her name and motioned toward his office door, right off the main lobby.

Her shoulders slumped and a wariness hit her face, but she nodded. Nate studied her as she limped toward him, clutching the crutch that one of the orthopedic physicians had insisted she use for a day or two. The physician had had a tough time getting her to agree—but he’d eventually managed. Nate had commiserated with the man an hour ago.

Perci eyed Nate like he was about to bite.

She felt about him the same as he felt about her. They were two tigers caught in a cage, ready to defend their small space from the other. Nipping and snarling, biting and clawing.

Perci rubbed her face with one hand. She was paler than normal. The freckles on her cheeks stood out like paint spots. “What is it, sir?”

She always called him that when they were on the clock; it was another one of her little ways of poking at the bear. Perci loved to poke the bear.

Nate was the damned bear, and he knew it.

“Inside my office. We have some family business to discuss.”

“We’re not family, Dr. Masterson. Not you and I. You’re the one Masterson I’m not going to claim. How many times do I have to tell you that?”

“Ha ha. We’re kissing cousins. You might as well get used to it.” He’d like to kiss her. Just to stop that little mouth from snipping at him all the time.

But if he ever started kissing her, he’d probably never want to stop.

“Just because my sisters went all loony over a bunch of Masterson cowboys doesn’t mean I’m as gullible. Trusting. Naive. Willing to be so stupid.” Her smirk was weak. It had him mentally sighing. Why did she always have to fight? Especially him.

It seemed like they’d been fighting since the moment they’d met. She was tired and hurting, and still hissing like a half-wild kitten.

“You think your sisters made mistakes?” He knew she didn’t; Perci was a strong supporter of her new brothers-in-law in everything. It was just Nate she didn’t like.

His fault. He hadn’t exactly gone out of his way to play nice with this woman. He’d done everything he possibly could to push her away.

“No. But only three of you brothers were good husband material. And they snatched them all up. Not everyone in a family can measure up.” She shot him a sassy look, though the exhaustion in her face and in the way she held herself told him its own story. “I don’t suppose you have a cousin somewhere for me? I met one or two at the weddings who would work.”

He’d not wanted to admit it to anyone, but he’d been worried about her tonight.

It hadn’t been all that long ago that she’d been injured by a burning beam when a monster had attacked his brother and her identical twin. Perci’s actions had saved all of their lives—and she’d ended up with second-degree burns on her back and a few broken bones. She was still healing.

Still looked so…vulnerable. Nate hated when Perci was vulnerable.

Her family had had its share of troubles in the past year. That, no one could deny.

What he had to tell her would just wrap all that up. Tie the loose ends. Hopefully, the Tylers could move on after that.

Like Perci’s three sisters Phoebe, Pip, and Pandora, all had.

Sparring with Perci just hadn’t been the same since the night Jay Gunderson had burned down the Tylers’ barn, with Perci, Pip, and Nate’s brother Matt inside.

“Jay Gunderson is dead. Complications from an infection. I thought you deserved to know as soon as I learned.”

Perci stared at him out of those eyes of hers that he still dreamt about. “I’m not exactly sure what I am supposed to say here.”

“I know.” The loss of life, any life, had always struck him hard. But in this instance, he just couldn’t force himself to mourn the man who had tried to kill the woman in front of him. Who had tried to kill Matt. And Perci’s twin, Pip, who had never hurt anything or anyone in her entire life. “But I wanted you to hear it from me.”

She nodded. “Thank you. I’ll tell Dad.”

“I’ve already called Matt to let him and Pip know.”

She nodded again. “Of course. Just what she needs. Reminding of Jay Gunderson. She’s not feeling well today.”

“You spoke with her?”

“No.” It was a simple answer, but Nate didn’t press. He knew how she operated. And damn it all, even though it belied all logic, Perci always seemed to know exactly how her identical twin was feeling. Especially since Pip had announced her pregnancy. “But I know.”

“That’s a little too woo-woo for me.”

“Your powers of description are awe inspiring, Dr. Nate.”

He snorted. “Grab your things, smart ass, and let’s go. I promised Matt and Joel I’d drive you home tonight.”

“Gee, thanks, Galahad.”

But she followed along. Which told him her exhaustion went deeper than her desire to avoid him at all costs.

She said very little as they drove. About twenty minutes into the drive, he looked over at her. She hadn’t spoken in a while.

“You ok?”

“Just thinking. Tired. Dr. Paterson gave me something for the pain. It’s getting to me.”

“Admitting a weakness? You must be hurting worse than I thought?” All joking aside, he wanted to know.

She went silent and stayed that way until they got to his home. He hadn’t intended to bring her there, but he had.

Perci hadn’t said a word when he’d made the turn into the private access road that would lead to his place, instead of going past it on toward the Tyler ranch several miles beyond.

It wasn’t until they were in his driveway and he’d rounded the front of the car that he realized she’d drifted off.

Nate made a quick decision. She didn’t need to be putting weight on that foot. Not when she didn’t have to.

He opened her door and leaned down.

Startled blue eyes met his. “Nate?”

“Yes.”

“Why am I here?”

“I made an executive decision—as your physician.”

“Dr. Paterson treated me tonight.”

“He gladly turned your care over to me after you snipped at him tonight. So…I made a decision. You’re sleeping here tonight. Where I can keep an eye on you.”

“It’s just a sprain, you dork.”

“And it happened on my watch. You’re stuck with me tonight. Unless you can get Pan or Levi to drive you home? It is rather late…”

She sighed, then turned her face against his neck. He half feared she’d bite him. “I can walk, Masterson. I’m not helpless.”

“Can it. You’re dead on your feet. And probably a bit wobbly. You should have two crutches, not one. The instant I put you down, you’ll fall and break your neck. Sue the shit out of us.”

“Right. Like I’d sue my three brothers-in-law—how would they support my future nieces and nephews?” She squirmed. “Put me down, you idiot.”

“No.” Nate knew he was being a contrary ass, but she’d acted like he was a serial killer out to carry her off. Besides, he was enjoying it. Perci smelled like all woman. The scent of hospital antiseptic and cleaner was still there, but he could make out her shampoo, too. And the unique scent that was all her. “It’s raining, and you’ll fall flat on your ass—or break that leg again.”

He wasn’t an idiot. His attraction to this woman was stronger than any he’d ever had for another woman.

Perci was the woman he would dream about at night for a long, long time.

Sometimes that attraction got the best of him, and he did something stupid like this.

He scooped her up and carried her over the steps and onto the front porch.

The door opened, and his brother Levi stepped out. “Caught you a pretty fish, too? Finally. I told my wife you were the slowest on the uptake.”

Levi’s words had deepened with satisfaction at the word wife. All of his brothers sounded just like that when they mentioned the women they loved. Matt and Pip were now fully ensconced on their ranch a mile or so past the entrance to this one that Nate currently shared with Levi. This one had been the family homestead for generations. Levi ran the ranch—all the properties, mostly—owned by the Mastersons, while Nate’s brother Joel ran the county as sheriff, and Matt ran a successful vet practice and worked toward building his own horse ranch. Joel and his wife, Phoebe, lived a bit closer to the town now, having finished redoing the old homestead that had been Nate’s grandparents’ place. There was one smaller chunk of property with a three-story, four bedroom home on it. It was about five miles west of where he now lived. Levi owned two of those miles in between. Matt owned one, and Nate owned the rest.

One day, if Nate ever married, he’d take his own wife there. He was almost finished with the renovations now.

It was just a matter of another week or two.

He’d been thinking of moving there a lot lately. Hard not to do, when his house was constantly filled with his brothers and the women they loved. Redheaded, blue-eyed women everywhere he turned. Each and every one of them reminding him of the one in his arms.

Perci was always around now, too. Never far from her sisters. They traveled as a damned pack; that was for certain. Every time he blinked, she was there.

Tempting him to do something completely stupid. Like touch her. Kiss her.

Give her his entire soul.

“Can it, Levi. She’s exhausted and took a hard knock tonight when a patient fell on her. Hurt her ankle and leg again. I just gave her a lift. She’s had some pain meds and is extremely groggy.”

“Sure, you did.” Levi smirked at him, then looked at Perci more closely. “She looks more like a captive. That your intention? Carry your woman away? Let me guess, taking Persephone down to Hades? I was going to try it with Pandora if she didn’t start cooperating, but I figured she’d emasculate me if I even tried. I thought Perci was the scariest sister, but I’ve learned. Pan has her beat hands down.”

“He’s lucky I don’t have a scalpel.”

 

***

 

Perci was just glad it was so dark her brother-in-law couldn’t see the red on her cheeks. Levi was the type to snark at her for what his brother was doing. And what in the hell was Nate doing? “I can walk. He just likes to lord it over me that he’s bigger and stronger and in charge—at the hospital. I thought he was driving me home.”

“Aha. He captured you when you were least expecting it. I’m not going to ask what Hades is planning to do with you, Persephone, but I can imagine.”

“Ha ha, Levi.” She thought about squirming again. But the arms around her were far too strong for that to do much good. She would just keep her dignity and let this play out how it would. That was all she could do.

But, damn it, she did feel like a captive.

With Nate, it was best to just let him think he was winning. She’d just do that until he decided to let her down.

Sometimes it stunk, having him so much bigger than she was. Perci suspected Nate liked the size difference. Liked having her vulnerable and in his clutches.

Hell, that drug was making her a bit too dramatic tonight. She squirmed slightly, but the arms around her were hard and strong. She wasn’t getting down until he chose to put her down. Period.

He smiled down at her, but there wasn’t any humor in the expression.

More like a mountain lion about to pounce. That was usually how she felt about the man. Like he was going to attack her at any moment.

Past history had told her she wasn’t that far off the mark with him. Give him an opportunity, and he definitely would pounce.

“You can put me down, Masterson.”

“Nope. It’s a matter of principle, now.”

“Excuse me?” The man didn’t make a lick of sense. Except that he’d always enjoyed making her life as difficult as he possibly could. She squirmed again. His arms tightened.

Nate had really strong arms that she knew would never drop her, at least. There was that. The man was going to keep her safe—all while annoying the hell out of her.

“Inside. Then you can camp out in the guest room. If you really want, I’ll drive you home in a bit. Your dad home tonight?”

She shook her head. Her dad had been splitting his time between his partner’s ranch in Texas and theirs, lately.

“The boys?”

“No. Phoebe and Joel have them,” Levi answered. “So our sweet little Perci would be left all alone over there.”

“Exactly.”

Her younger sister Pan snickered when he walked by her. She’d been the one to flick on the light. “Watch out, Perci. You’re next.”

“Bite me, Pandora. Just because the rest of you lost what brain cells you have the instant you saw a Masterson doesn’t mean I will.”

“Sure, you won’t. I’ll get you some pajamas.”

“Gee, thanks.” She hated feeling helpless like this. No doubt he knew exactly that.

He carried her down the hall, then dumped her on the mattress of the guest room.

Ok, so maybe he lowered her gently, but…the idea of Nate leaning over her while she was on a bed had her breath catching and something tightening in her gut.

“I’m perfectly capable of staying alone for one night.” But she didn’t like it—and would never admit that to anyone. Except maybe her twin.

She hadn’t spent more than half a dozen nights alone in her life.

“No doubt. Good thing it’s just for one night, right?”

He smirked.

Perci wanted to smack him. Nate could be such an ass sometimes...

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