Authors: Dallas Schulze
She was reluctant to intrude on the unexpected reunion, but the longer she pretended to be invisible, the more awkward it was going to be for everyone when they remembered she was there. Drawing a shallow breath, she pushed back her chair and stood up. The movement drew Gareth's attention and he immediately looked apologetic.
"Kate! We didn't mean to ignore you." He moved toward her, one hand gripping his brother's shoulder for an instant as he walked past. The gesture was revealing. Obviously, whatever the reason Nick had been absent from the family scene, it wasn't because he was unwelcome.
"I didn't feel ignored," she said truthfully. She'd been too busy speculating about what was going on to feel left out.
He slid his arm around her waist and pulled her against his side with gentle affection. "Kate, I want you to meet my little brother, Nick. He made my life a living hell when we were growing up."
"Gee, thanks, big bro." Nick was smiling as he turned.
He had dimples, Kate noticed as she held out her a beautiful matched set that gave his smile an air of mischief. She knew that smile, she thought, knew that mouth and the solid thrust of chin.
"Nick, this is Kate Moran." Gareth's voice was warm and happy as he introduced her. "We're getting married in six months."
Kate's eyes swept up to meet Nick's, reading shocked recognition in the chocolate brown depths of his eyes. She started to jerk her hand back but his fingers closed over hers, warm and strong and horribly familiar.
"Kate." The rasp in his voice seemed more pronounced, as if his cold had taken an abrupt turn for the worse.
And why not? Kate thought wildly. Her own throat felt so tight, it was a struggle to breathe. She tugged on her hand and he released it slowly.
"Nick." She was distantly pleased to hear that her voice sounded completely normal. Inside, she was starting to babble hysterically.
"Are you home to stay, Nick?" Philip asked, coming forward to stand beside his younger son.
With an effort, Nick dragged his eyes away from Kate's. He shrugged, the movement stiff and jerky. "I don't know. Harry didn't say much about the condition of the house but I gather there's quite a bit of work to do. I told him I'd stick around until the job is done. I'm not thinking any further ahead than that right now."
"This is your home," Philip began. He started to say more but a warning glance from his wife had him swallowing the words. Kate noted the interplay with a distant part of her mind, the part that wasn't frantically praying that this would turn out to be a dream from which she'd awaken any minute.
"It's good to have you back," Sara said. She brushed her fingers against Nick's arm as if she had to touch him to be sure he was really there. She glanced at Kate, her smile warm with happiness. "I'm so glad that you and Kate will have a chance to get to know each other before the wedding."
Kate swallowed a hysterical laugh. Oh, God, what was she supposed to do now? Casually mention that, as a matter of fact, she already knew Nick—in the most intimate sense of the word? That she would have mentioned it months ago if only she'd bothered to get his name before she slept with him?
"You've been quiet tonight," Gareth said as he snapped the lid onto the plastic container of leftover casserole.
"I didn't have much to say." Kate knew he was looking at her but she kept her eyes down, as if rinsing the dishes took all her concentration. She'd avoided looking at him for the past forty-five minutes. She wasn't sure whether it was shame or fear that had her avoiding his eyes. Shame that she'd once slept with a man whose name she didn't even know or fear that Gareth might be able to somehow read the past in her eyes and know that that man had been his younger brother.
She'd persuaded Sara to let her take care of the after dinner cleanup. She'd thought that doing dishes would give her a few minutes of time to herself, time to recover her equilibrium. But Gareth had followed her into the kitchen to help. Usually, she appreciated that he was as comfortable in the kitchen as he was in the squad room. Her father had never moved beyond the idea that the kitchen was a woman's domain. Tonight, she would have been grateful for a touch of good, old-fashioned chauvinism on Gareth's part, she thought ruefully.
"I know things got a little crazy, what with Nick coming home in the middle of dinner."
"If you're worried that I felt neglected, don't be." She glanced in his general direction and forced a smile. "Your parents are obviously thrilled that your brother is home."
"Yeah. I don't think they really believed he was coming home again." He reached for the oval bowl that had held asparagus. Two fat, green spears lay in the bottom. Absently, he picked one up and bit off the bottom.
At another time, Kate might have smiled at his predictability. She'd known Gareth for barely six months, but she already recognized his habits. When he ate asparagus, he always started at the stem and worked his way up to the tip. He ran his car—a pale gray, two-door sedan—through the car wash every Thursday afternoon. He always took his first sip of coffee black and then added three lumps of sugar. One of the things she loved most about him was that he always did just what was expected of him, even in the small things in life. She could count on him to do what he said he'd do, to be there when she needed him.
Unless he found out about what had happened between her and his brother five years ago. Her fingers tightened over the edge of the plate she'd just rinsed. If that happened, she might not be able to count on him for anything at all.
"It's strange having Nick back," Gareth said.
"Five years is a long time." But not nearly long enough. Kate set the plate in the dishwasher and picked up a handful of silverware.
"A long time," he agreed. Absentmindedly, he finished off the asparagus spear and reached for the one remaining in the bowl. "Things always seemed to happen when Nick was around. Even when he was a kid, he could talk people into doing things they'd never dreamed of doing."
"Hmm." Kate clattered the silverware, hoping to discourage conversation. She didn't need him to tell her about Nick's persuasive powers, she thought bitterly, and then caught herself. Honesty came reluctantly. Much as she would have liked to cast Nick as a villainous seducer, that wasn't the way it had been. She hadn't been an innocent victim five years ago. More's the pity. It would have been nice to be able to lay the blame squarely at his feet.
"I should have guessed that Harry would be the one to get him to come home," Gareth said.
"They must be very close. Is Harry a family friend?"
"Not exactly." Gareth finished the asparagus and carried the bowl over to the sink for her to rinse. "Nick's wife was Harry's granddaughter. Her parents died when she was little more than a baby and Harry raised her. Nick met Harry when he was hired to do some work on the guest house at Spider's Walk. He actually introduced Nick and Lisa."
"Spider's Walk?" Kate seized on the least important element of the explanation. She didn't want to be reminded that Nick had been married and widowed before he was thirty. She didn't want to feel sympathy for him.
Gareth grinned. "There's a stained glass window above the door that shows a spider and its web. If I remember the story correctly, Harry's grandmother had the window installed because she admired the industrious nature of the spider. It didn't take long for people to start referring to the place as the spider house, which wasn't exactly what she had in mind. But she figured that, even if she took the window out, the name would probably stick, so she gave it a more elegant twist and started referring to it as Spider's Walk."
Kate smiled. "It's unique."
She loaded the last of the dishes into the dishwasher, closed the door and turned the machine on, then looked around for something else to do. The kitchen was immaculate and, for a moment, she found herself bitterly resentful of Mrs. Pickle's efficiency. Why couldn't the woman have left splatters on the stove or a few fingerprints on the refrigerator?
"Are you sure nothing's wrong?" Gareth asked.
The question forced her to look at him. The concern in his expression made her eyes sting with emotion. If she lived to be a hundred, she would never understand what she'd done to deserve Gareth Blackthorne. He was such a good man, kind and caring. The fact that he loved her seemed little short of miraculous.
"Nothing's wrong," she told him, and was pleased to hear the evenness of her response. "I'm just a little tired, that's all."
"Hard day in the jungles?" he asked.
His crooked grin was one of the things she liked best about him. It always seemed to hold an endearing hint of mischief. Tonight, Kate couldn't help but think that, when he smiled, the resemblance between him and his younger brother was striking. She pushed the thought away as she went into his arms. She didn't want to think about Nick anymore.
She rested her head on Gareth's shoulder and wished with all her heart that Nick hadn't come home. Everything had been so perfect.
"Sorry to interrupt." The words made Kate start. She pulled away from Gareth abruptly and then cursed her guilty reaction when she caught his startled look. "There's a phone call for you," Nick told his brother. "Mom says it's the station house."
Gareth sighed. "Kenny probably locked himself out of his squad car again."
Nick's brows rose. ''One of your better officers?"
''Usually, but he has this mental block about keys. He can't seem to hang onto them." Gareth glanced at Kate. "I'll be right back."
She forced a thin smile as she nodded. "Fighting crime takes precedence."
"Yeah." There was a friendly hint of malice in the smile Nick gave his brother. "Wouldn't want to leave one of Eden's finest stranded without wheels. You never know when a crime wave might hit."
"Smart ass," Gareth said, but he was smiling as he went to answer the phone.
He left behind a sharp-edged silence. Nick knew that Kate was hoping he'd follow Gareth out. A wiser man would have done just that. There were things that needed to be said between them, but this was not exactly the best time or place. He was tired, his throat hurt, his head ached and, though he'd only been home a few hours, he could already feel the walls starting to close in on him. He'd expected this homecoming to be difficult. What he hadn't expected was to find his brother engaged to a woman he'd once slept with. A woman he'd never quite managed to forget.
She looked different, he thought. The girl he'd met five years ago had worn her streaky blond hair tumbling onto her shoulders, and her blue eyes had held a loneliness that had drawn him more than the gentle prettiness of her features. The woman standing in the middle of his mother's kitchen looking as if she'd rather be anywhere else was older, of course, but there were other changes. Her hair was still an intriguing mix of pale gold and honey, but it was confined in a neat twist at the base of her neck. And her eyes were the same smoky blue he remembered, but the vulnerability that had found its way through the wall of pain that had surrounded him then was gone. There was a reserve about her—a control—that hadn't been there five years ago. He wondered if it was just a result of maturity or if something had happened to change her.
"Fancy meeting you here," he said.
Kate lifted her chin and looked directly at him for the first time since that initial moment of shocked recognition. ''Obviously, I didn't know you were Gareth's brother."
"Obviously." Nick leaned one shoulder against the doorjamb, making it impossible for her to leave without pushing past him. Something flashed through her eyes, there and gone so quickly that he almost thought he imagined it, but he knew he hadn't. She was afraid of him? For some reason, the idea that she might fear him touched off his temper. He was suddenly—illogically—angry at her.
"Were you seeing him when you slept with me?" he asked conversationally.
Kate sucked in her breath, a quick, sharp sound.
"I'll take that as a no. I have to admit that it's a relief. It may be all the rage on Gerald, but I guess I'm old-fashioned enough to find the idea of my brother and me sleeping with the same woman just a little tacky.''
In some distant part of his mind, it occurred to him that he was behaving like a bastard. The knowledge did nothing to soothe the sharp anger that drove him.
"I didn't even know Gareth existed five years ago," she said, sounding both defensive and angry.
"No?" Nick arched one brow in mocking question.
"No," she snapped. "What happened then had nothing to do with him."
"I won't argue with that."
Despite herself, Kate felt a quick rush of relief. If he really meant that, maybe he wouldn't say anything to Gareth. It shouldn't matter one way or another— it wasn't as if she'd been unfaithful. She hadn't even known Gareth when she and Nick had met. Gareth hadn't expected virginity any more than she'd expected it from him. But knowing she'd had other lovers was a far cry from knowing his younger brother had been one of them.
"Did you make it a habit?" Nick asked, still in that conversational tone that put a bitter sting in the words. "Sleeping with men you didn't know, I mean?"
Kate felt white-hot anger bum away her fear. How dare he sit in judgment on her, as if what had happened had been her doing alone? She tilted her head back and looked at him directly, her eyes challenging.