Chapter One (unedited)
One year earlier...
“Aww, come here, cutie. Good boy.”
Truth Richards knelt down as the small, fawn colored puppy ambled toward her.
“You’re such a good boy,” she murmured, rubbing behind his wide, floppy ears.
The small dog was stocky with short, broad limbs but was the softest, most lovable thing she’d seen since Danny had dropped her off at his single-story family home. She had barely had her bags settled inside when she’d heard the puppy’s soft whimpering coming from outside.
“Where did you come from, huh?” The puppy had no collar yet was too small to be out fending for himself. “Are you lost?”
In response, the sweet puppy licked her hand then tried climbing up her lap to lick her face. Truth fell back on her haunches and laughed when the pup began licking at her wildly.
“Don’t encourage her or she’ll never stop.”
Truth jumped at the unexpected male voice behind her and whirled around. The man was huge, with wide shoulders and biceps that stretched his white, dirt stained shirt. There were sweat stains under his armpits and around his collar, and his dark, shaggy shoulder length hair was just as damp with sweat. He had to have been walking for some time.
But where had he come from?
Daniel had assured her that she would be safe here alone, that there was only one way in and out to his modest, rural home. Yet, this man had made it up here without her even noticing him.
Truth clutched the puppy close to her as the man continued his long-legged stride toward them. His sudden appearance frightened her, but not as much as his unreadable expression behind his thick, unkempt beard.
He stopped just a few feet away from her, his dark eyes searching. He was dirty and there was a prominent bruise running along the side of his face. Her mouth went dry. But she wouldn’t let him see her fear and trepidation. He was the trespasser here.
“Excuse me, sir. But how did you get here?”
The man cocked a thick brow, his broad features twisting into what could have been amusement. “I should be asking you that.”
The man took another step toward her and Truth jerked back. He had to know how big and intimidating he was, but he ignored her and came down on his haunches. To her surprise, the puppy wiggled out of her arms and rushed over to the man.
The man scooped the small, sweet dog in his large arms and rose to his feet. He held the small pup to his chest as it licked him and barked excitedly.
Truth cocked her head to the side, confused. When the man started toward the house, Truth climbed to her feet and rushed toward him. She ran up the porch steps and blocked the front door with her body. The idea of her trying to block a man who still towered over her even as she stood on elevated ground was laughable but there was no way she was letting him inside that house.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you inside. If you’re here to see Danny or his brother, you’ll have to wait outside until they get back.”
The man’s fingers stilled over the puppy’s head, and he glared at her, letting his dark gaze travel down her petite frame. “And who the hell are you?”
Truth frowned at his harsh tone and insulting scrutiny. He must have mistaken her politeness for meekness.
“I’m a friend of the family,” she snapped. “Who the hell are you?”
The man continued to study her. Suddenly his annoyance faded, and his lips curved into a slow smile. The slow grin transformed his face and for a moment she found it charming.
For a moment.
“I guess that makes two of us,” he drawled. “Now, how about you move out of my way so I can feed this little rascal.”
Truth hesitated then glanced down at the puppy who was now chewing and drooling at the man’s shirt. If he was a homicidal maniac, he certainly was an animal loving one.
She sighed and stepped aside. With a small shake of his head, the man brushed pass her and entered the house. She hesitated for a millisecond before she followed him inside.
He stopped in the kitchen, pulled down a bowl and filled it with puppy chow. The dog went at the meal eagerly, munching on the pebbles as if he’d been starved. Maybe he had been. For a moment she wondered if the man was just here to dog sit. If that was the case, she felt really shitty about their earlier encounter.
“What’s her name?”
The man filled another bowl with water and placed it beside the dog. He bent down and began rubbing the back of her ears. “She doesn’t have one yet.”
Truth tilted her head to the side. “Why not?”
“Because she wandered up here a few days ago. But Little Monster seem to be sticking,” the man said affectionately.
He straightened and for a short moment she had forgotten how tall he was. When he took a step forward, Truth took an automatic step back. He stopped in his tracks and arched a brow.
“My name’s Truth.”
His thick brows pulled together in a deep frown. “What kind of name is Truth?”
Her back drew up, but she tried not to let her irritation show. “What kind of name is…” She trailed off, realizing he hadn’t given her his name. She paused, waiting for him to do so. When he continued staring at her expectantly, Truth waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, never mind.”
He shrugged. “Well Truth, I’d say it’s been nice meeting you but I’d really hate to lie.”
Warmth filled her cheeks, though she wasn’t sure why she was the one embarrassed. He hadn’t exactly been a delight himself.
“Listen, we started off all wrong,” Truth began. “I’m sorry I was rude earlier. Danny didn’t mention a dog or that someone was coming up here.”
The man studied her in that unnerving way of his. “That’s because she’s a stray. Where is Danny, anyway?”
“His brother had car trouble. He went to pick him up.”
The man’s lip curved in amusement. “Is that what he told you?”
Truth frowned. Danny was as honest and straitlaced as they came, yet this man’s words seem to suggest otherwise. “Is there something I should know?”
“Yeah. His brother is a no-good, son-of-a-bitch that got himself arrested for sticking his nose where it didn’t belong.”
She sucked in a sharp breath. She may not have met her brother-in-law yet, but she’d be damned if she’d let this guy talk about him like that.
“How dare you? I thought you were a friend.”
He shrugged again. “Well, it’s true. And as much as I’d like to know why Danny brought one of his groupies here, I really don’t care. I’m tired and sweaty and done with this conversation.”
Before she could set him straight, the man walked around her and out of the kitchen. When he began peeling off his shirt, Truth’s mouth fell open and she started after him.
“Whoa! What do you think you’re doing?”
The man slung the shirt over his shoulder and turned to her, irritation plain in his dark brown eyes. But it wasn’t his eyes that drew her attention. The muscles that rippled down his tanned arms and across his sculpted abdomen held her mesmerized. She didn’t consider herself a shallow woman, but in that moment she wanted nothing more than to glide her palm over his chest and down his--
“See something you like?”
Truth blinked, and her gaze flew up to his. In place of his earlier irritation was a smoldering heat, hidden behind a sly grin. She shook her head and began babbling like an idiot.
“Sorry. I was just…I didn’t mean to stare. I was…it’s just…”
Lord, what’s the matter with me?
His gaze raked over hers. “Just what?”
She shook her head, her face and body flooded with warmth. “Nothing. I was just…caught off guard.”
She nodded jerkily.
He smirked. “Liar.”
Before she had time to gather and make sense of her thoughts, he closed the space between them. His intention was blatant and she immediately backed away.
“Don’t you dare—”
With one swift move, he looped his arm around her waist and pulled her to him. He planted his lips over hers and the sudden contact was a shock to her system. She stood there frozen as he moved his lips over hers until the heat of his touch seared through her.
For a fleeting moment, Truth shut her eyes as shock waves of electric energy rolled through her. It left her with a fierce trembling that threaten to have her legs buckle beneath her. If she hadn’t been latched on to his thick arms, she would have surely melted at his feet.
She had never been rendered this weak and breathless from a kiss. Not even with--
That sudden realization was like ice water to her heated senses. Truth brought her palms up to the man’s chest and shoved him away. He stumbled back, surprise and frustration flaring bright in his molten gaze.
“What the hell! Don’t you ever do that again!”
“Cut the act. You fucking liked it.”
Truth swiped her fingers across her lips. Maybe she had, but the fact that she shouldn’t have was the problem.
Before she could reject his observation with a lie, there was the faint sound of a car engine approaching. Her heart stop. Truth rushed to the window and pulled back the curtains. Danny’s steel gray sedan pulled into the driveway.
“Oh no,” she muttered, heat from her guilt and shame filling her face.
The man came up behind her and placed a hand on the small of her back. Truth jerked from the unexpected touch.
“Relax. It’s just my brother.”
She whipped around to face him. “Wait, you’re Jackson?”
He rolled his eyes. “Finally figured it out?”
Truth could only stare at him, horrified as the enormity of what just happened between them began to sink in. When the car door slammed shut, she winced.
Any minute now, Danny would be walking through the door. What was she going to tell him? He didn’t deserve to be hurt like this.
With every fiber she possessed, Truth schooled her features into a serene mask. “We have to tell him what just happened between us.”
Jackson arched a brow. “Why?”
Truth carefully put some distance between them and clasped her hands in front of her. “Because Danny’s my husband.”
“What do you think of my Ruthie?”
Jackson Matoa leaned back in his seat and took another drink of his beer. While they waited for Truth to finally emerge from the bedroom, he used that moment to get his own emotions in check. He couldn’t remember when he’d been in a more irritable mood.
He didn’t want to talk about Truth—or think about how very unavailable she was.
“Come on, Jackson.” Danny nudged his leg with his knee. “What do you think of her?”
Jackson shrugged. “She’s cute.”
A wide grin stretching across his brother’s tawny brown face. Aside from their height, they shared little physical resemblance. Where Jackson was broad, his little brother was lean—the result of having different fathers.
But that didn’t change how Jackson felt about his little brother or how protective he was of him. Danny was his closest family and Jackson wouldn’t do anything to hurt him. If it meant keeping his true feelings about his new sister-in-law to himself, so be it. There was no point in yearning for someone he couldn’t have. No matter how sweet she tasted. Or how right she felt in his arms.
“You think I rushed things, don’t you?”
“What does it matter what I think? I see you’re happy. I’m happy for you.”
“Don’t give me that. You’re obviously annoyed about it.”
“Actually, I’m surprised. Why didn’t you tell me about her or that you were planning to get married?”
“Because it wasn’t planned. We eloped. It’s…complicated.”
Jackson’s grip tightened around his can. “How complicated?”
“She’s not pregnant, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Jackson relaxed his grip, ignoring the relief that suddenly filled him. “Then why the rush. Did she need a green card or something?”
Danny shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Something like that…”
Jackson stared at his brother then burst out laughing. “Okay, now it all makes sense. For a minute there, I thought you were going to say something stupid like you were in love.”
Danny glared at him. “I do love her. Very much. We would have eventually gotten married, but circumstances sort of pushed up our timeline.”
The sincerity in his brother’s voice was steadfast and Jackson inclined his head.
“So…” Jackson began, running his finger along the lip of the can. “Car trouble, Danny? Really?”
His brother shrugged. “Hey, I had to tell her something since I wasn’t quite expecting a detour to the police station on my first day back home. Besides, I didn’t want her to get the wrong impression about you before you two got to meet.”
Jackson shoved away the thought. “Well, I’m glad Doyle decided not to press charges. Knowing you, you’d probably start telling people how I’d been drafted in the military.”
Danny balled up a napkin and threw it at him. Jackson effortlessly dodged it and laughed.
“You know, joining the army isn’t a bad idea. Maybe it’ll give you some discipline. Truth has a second cousin who’s in the Air Force. Maybe she can—”
“I’ll pass,” Jackson cut in, taking another sip of his beer. “Where is she from, anyway?”
“No, I mean what country is she come from? She has a slight accent.”
And it was sexy.
He’d been intrigued by it the moment he’d heard it. Though, maybe not as much as he’d been captivated by her sultry dark brown eyes or the dimple on her right cheek.
“Barbados,” Danny said. “But we met at a club in DC, after one of my shows.”
Jackson nodded, glad to have that mystery answered. He wanted to know more about her, but he knew it wouldn’t lessen his fixation.
And he needed to do everything he could to get over her and that kiss.
“I guess you won’t be fighting off any more groupies,” Jackson teased, “now that you’ll be dragging a wife along.”
They both laughed, though Jackson knew his brother had too much discipline, and too big a moral compass, to let himself get tempted by superficial women.
Suddenly Danny sobered then leaned forward in his seat. “Actually, there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”
“Okay, guys. I’m ready.”
They both turned as Truth entered the living room. She looked stunning in her slim violet dress and her elegantly made-up face. Try as he might, Jackson couldn’t seem to take his eyes off of her.
Danny rose to his feet and went to her. “You look beautiful, babe.”
She smiled sweetly and Jackson felt it in his heart—and in his shaft. He tore his gaze away from the light kiss his brother pressed on her lips and rose to his feet. He would have opted for dinner at home, but Jackson wouldn’t deny his brother a chance to show off his beautiful new bride around their small town.
They were barely outside the door when Danny’s cell phone rang.
“Hold up,” he called out, staring down at the screen. “It’s my manager.” He went back inside the house, leaving him and Truth alone.
What followed was the most uncomfortable silence Jackson had ever experienced. When he glanced over at Truth, she had her hands clasped in front of her and her profile was rigid. But she did everything she could to avoid his gaze.
“If we want to get through tonight, we’re going to have to talk about what happened.”
She finally turned dark, irate eyes at him. “Fine. Talk.”
“You should have told me you were married.” Jackson hadn’t meant to blurt out that accusation first but there it was.
“No,” she retorted in a harsh whisper. “You shouldn’t have kissed me.”
“You shouldn’t have kissed me back.”
Her eyes rounded in shock. “I did not!”
“For someone named ‘Truth’ you have a bad habit of lying to yourself.”
She glowered at him. “The point is, you crossed the line. You can’t just go around grabbing and kissing women you don’t know.”
“Believe me, I don’t. But you can’t deny that you wanted me to touch you.”
She bit her lip and he instantly thought of their softness and how good they felt against his. Maybe he would have been able to resist temptation earlier if she hadn’t been looking at him the way she had. He couldn’t remember a woman looking at him with such hunger in her eyes.
“Well, it can never happen again.”
She was right about that. Yet that brief sample he’d gotten hadn’t been enough for him. Deal with it, he scolded himself. He may be a lot of things but he wouldn’t be the guy that screwed his brother’s wife.
“Don’t worry,” he said evenly. “It won’t. Hell, I’ve already forgotten about it.”
She nodded stiffly. “I think we should tell him.”
Jackson tensed. “Tell him what? Nothing happened remember?”
The last thing he wanted was to hurt his brother. Danny was clearly head over heels for her, and he could see how much Truth loved him. Jackson wasn’t going to be the cause of any strain between them.
Suddenly the door wrenched open and Danny stepped outside. “Sorry for the wait. Let’s go eat. Jackson, you driving, right?”
“Sure,” he muttered, glancing back at Truth to see what she would say next. To his relief, she simply plastered a stiff smile on her face and took Danny’s hand.
But his relief was short-lived.
Throughout dinner, the guilt Jackson felt earlier only grew until he was almost felt sick with it. He had never kept anything from his brother and as much as he wanted to pretend the kiss had meant nothing, the heavier that lie weighed inside him. Especially when he knew deep down, he was only keeping this secret had little to do with sparing his brother’s feelings and a lot to do with protecting the image his brother had of him.
When they finally returned home, Jackson hung back. He watched as Danny led his sleepy bride up the porch steps, his arm looped around her. Jackson turned away, forcing the jealousy he had no right to feel away. He had never been jealous of his brother and wouldn’t start now.
“Jackson, aren’t you coming in?”
He glanced behind him and his gaze instantly locked with Truth’s. She quickly slid her gaze away, and Jackson wondered what was going through her mind right now. If he felt this level of quilt, he could only imagine how she must be feeling. He had forced her into this lie and he felt like shit about it.
“Yeah, in a minute,” he said and dug out his carton of cigarettes. He’d been trying to cut back on his smoking, and had managed to go a few days without one.
But tonight, he needed one bad.
He leaned against the porch rail and stared out into the darkness. The air was unusually cool for June and he welcomed it, hoping it would be enough to settle his wayward thoughts. As minute turned into several, he lingered outside for a bit longer yet still couldn’t seem to clear his head of that kiss.
“I miss those.”
Jackson turned as Danny stepped out onto porch to join him. He followed his brother’s gaze to his half smoked cigarette then offered it to him.
Danny shook his head. He jammed his hands into his pocket and leaned against the other end of the rail. “Truth hates it, so I gave them up.”
Jackson arched a brow. “Just like that? She says jump and you ask how high?”
“It’s not like that. She’s certainly not shy about sharing her opinions on it, but she never asked me to quit. I just did. For her.”
“Well, you are a man in love,” Jackson muttered sardonically.
“Yeah, I am. And one day you’ll find someone that’ll make you want to give them everything. Even if it means giving up something else.”
Jackson stared down at the cigarette, took one long drag before he butted it. Silence fell between them and Jackson glanced over at his brother, who studied him also, concern strained across his face.
“You were kind of quiet at dinner tonight,” Danny said. “Is everything okay with you? This doesn’t have anything to do with that trespassing charge, does it? Because once those charges are dropped—”
“I kissed Truth.”
Danny’s eyes widen with shock then narrowed in disbelief. Jackson wanted to kick himself, but the words had fallen out before he had a chance to think them through. Jackson scrambled to fix his blunder.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know she was your--shit.”
The fist that slammed against jaw was unexpected and hurt like hell. Jackson whipped his head back around to confront his brother. His hands were balled into fists and there was fire brewing in his eyes.
“Okay, I deserve that,” Jackson muttered. The faint metallic taste of blood coated his tongue and he spat over the rail. “But that was your only free one.”
Danny bristled. “You goddamn bastard! Why’d you do it?”
“It happened when you were out looking for me. I didn’t know she was your wife. I would have never touched her had I known.”
That didn’t seem to lessen his brother’s fury, but at least his hands were no longer balled into fists. He really wasn’t up for a fight tonight.
“Did she kiss you back?”
Jackson wiped at his mouth. “She pushed me away.”
It wasn’t the complete truth, but Jackson wasn’t going to give his brother a reason to stay pissed. Especially not at his new bride.
“Good. She should have slapped you.”
“I think she wanted to but by then I was clear across the room.”
The corner of Danny’s lips slightly lifted. “Yeah, she’s pretty strong for her size and could probably kick your ass. But if you try touching her again, I definitely will.”
Jackson rubbed his jaw. “Trust me, I won’t. She’s crazy about you. If it hadn’t been for me talking her out of it, she would have already told you about it.”
Danny’s expression softened and his smile widened. “I’m really lucky, aren’t I?”
Jackson grunted, absently wondering what it would take for him to find that kind of luck. But he didn’t want just any beautiful woman with a sweet smile and soft lips. He wanted the same pulse-pounding desire, the body-tingling rush he’d felt earlier.
He wanted the one woman he couldn’t have…
He wanted Truth. ♥
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