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Travis adjusted the leather-and-turquoise bolo tie, a close match to the one his brother was wearing with his Western-style tux. The irony of seeing his formerly Armani-faithful attorney brother dressed like this made it hard for Travis not to laugh.
"I never thought I'd see the day you got hitched to a cowgirl."
"I never thought I'd see the day you showed up at the Dry Gulch Ranch again," Leif answered.
"Couldn't miss the wedding of my favorite brother."
"Your only brother."
"Yeah, probably a good thing you don't have competition now that you're building a house here on the ranch. On the bright side, I do like that I get to wear my cowboy boots with this rented monkey suit."
Travis rocked back on the heels of his new boots, bought for the conspicuous occasion of Leif's wedding to Joni Griffin. He'd never seen his brother happier. Not only was he so in love that he beamed when he looked at his veterinarian bride, but his daughter, Effie, would be living with him for her last two years of high school.
The Dry Gulch Ranch was spiffed up for the ceremony and reception. Lights were strung through the branches of giant oaks and stringy sycamores. A white tent had been set up with chairs, leaving a makeshift aisle that led to a rose-covered altar where the two lovers would take their vows.
Most of the chairs were taken. Leif's friends from the prestigious law firm from which he'd recently resigned to open his own office nearer the ranch mingled with what looked to be half the population of Oak Grove.
The women from both groups looked quite elegant. The Big D lawyers were all in designer suits. The ranchers for the most part looked as if they'd feel a lot more at home in their Wranglers than in their off-the-rack suits and choking ties.
In fact, a few of the younger cowboys were in jeans and sport coats. Travis figured they were the smart ones. Weekends he wasn't working a homicide case he usually spent on a friend's ranch up in the hill country.
Riding, roping, baling hay, brandinghe'd done it all and loved it. A weekend place on the Dry Gulch Ranch, just a little over an hour from Dallas, would have been the perfect solution to Travis. Except for one very large problem.
Rueben Jackson Dalton, his father by virtue of a healthy sperm.
"Time for us to join the preacher," Leif said, jerking Travis back into the moment.
He walked at his brother's side and felt a momentary sense of anxiety. He and Leif had been through hell together growing up, most caused by R.J.
It had been just the two of them against the world since their mother's death, and they'd always been as close as a horse to a saddle. Now Leif was marrying and moving onto R.J.'s spread.
Oh, hell, what was he worried about? R.J. would never come between him and Leif. Besides, the old coot would be dead soon.
The music started. Leif's fifteen-year-old daughter started down the aisle, looking so grown-up Travis felt his chest constrict. He could only imagine what the sight did to Leif. Travis winked at Effie as she took her place at the altar. Her smile was so big it took over her face and danced in her eyes.
Travis looked up again and did a double take as he spotted the maid of honor gliding down the aisle. She damn sure didn't look the way she did the last time he'd seen her, but there was no doubt in his mind that the gorgeous lady was the same one he'd rescued in Georgio's sleaziest strip club four months earlier.
He'd spent only a few minutes with her, but she'd preyed on his mind a lot since then, so much so that he found himself showing up at Georgio's palace of perversion even when his work didn't call for doing so.
All in the interest of talking to her and making sure she was safe. In spite of his efforts, he'd never caught sight of her again.
Travis studied the woman as she took her place a few feet away from him. She was absolutely stunning in a luscious creation the color of the amethyst ring his mother used to wear. She'd given the ring to him before she'd died.
It was the only prized possession Travis ownedwell, that and the belt buckles he'd won in bull-riding competitions back when he had more guts than sense.
The wedding march sounded. The guests all stood. Travis's eyes remained fixed on the maid of honor. Finally, she looked at him, and when their eyes met, he saw the same tortured, haunting depths that had mesmerized him at their first meeting.
Travis forced his gaze away from the mystery woman and back to Joni and Travis. He wouldn't spoil the wedding, but before the night was over he'd have a little chat with the seductive maid of honor. Before he was through, he'd discover if she was as innocent as he'd first believed, or if the demons who'd filled her eyes with anguish had actually driven her to the dark side of life.
If the latter was the case, he'd make damn sure she stayed away from his niece, even if it meant telling Leif the truth about his new wife's best friend.
The reception might have a lot more spectacular fireworks than originally planned. Travis was already itching for the first dance.
* * *
So far, so good, Faith decided as she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. She had to hold it together and not let her emotions careen out of control. Any tears shed tonight should be ones of joy.
Unfortunately, she'd forgotten what joy felt like. Cornell had been missing for ten months now and she seemed no closer to finding him. Her nerves were ragged, her emotions so unsteady that the slightest incident could set off the waterworks.
Had it been anyone else who'd asked her to be maid of honor in her wedding, Faith could easily have said no. But she couldn't refuse Joni, especially after the way Joni had stood by her when Cornell first went missing.
Joni was still concerned, but as the weeks had turned into months, shelike Faith's other friendshad moved on with their lives. Faith understood, though she could never move on until Cornell was home again and safe.
As for the cops' theory that Cornell had left home by choice, she was convinced it was pure bunk. Sure, she could buy that Cornell had gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd. He was extremely vulnerable to peer influence.
And she wasn't so naive as to believe it was impossible that he might have experimented with drugs. A lot of kids had by age eighteen. But never in a million years would Cornell have left home and shut her out of his lifenot of his own free will.
Wherever he was tonight, he was being held against his will or
Here she went again, working herself into an anxiety-fueled meltdown.
This was Joni's big night. Surely Faith could hold herself together for a couple hours.
Her glance settled on Leif Dalton. A boyish grin split his lips, and his dark eyes danced in anticipation. A sexy, loving cowboy waiting for his beautiful bride. Joni was a very lucky womanif it lasted.
For Faith, marriage had been one of life's major disappointments, enough so that she had no intention of ever tying the knot again.
She switched her concentration to Leif's brother and best man. Tall. Thick, dark hair that fell playfully over his forehead. Hard bodied. Ruggedly handsome.
She struggled to figure out where she'd seen him before as she took her place on the other side of Leif's daughter. Faith had missed the rehearsal celebration last night and arrived at the ranch only minutes before the ceremony tonight.
But she'd definitely seen him somewhere.
The tempo of the music changed and a second later the bridal march filled the air. Sounds of shuffling feet and whispered oohs and aahs filled the air as the guests rose to their feet for their first sight of Joni in her white satin-and-lace gown.
Adorable twin girls, their curly red hair topped with pink bows, skipped and danced down the aisle in front of Joni, scattering rose petals. Lila and Lacy, Leif's three-year-old half nieces, whom Joni bragged about continuously. Faith wouldn't be surprised if Leif and Joni didn't start a family of their own within the year.
Faith stole another quick glance at the best man. Her heart pounded.
All of a sudden she knew exactly where she'd seen him before. In a Dallas strip club. He was the sexy cop who'd come to her rescue a few months back. The cop whose orders she'd disobeyed when she'd cleared out before he could ask too many questions.
He wouldn't be nearly as easy to dodge tonight.
Talk about spoiling a wedding. One word from the groom's brother about where he'd met the slutty maid of honor and Joni would figure out exactly why Faith had turned down every Saturday-night invitation to meet her and Leif for dinner.
Joni would worry about Faith's safety. Worse, if she couldn't persuade Faith to give up her visits to the criminal underbelly of Dallas, she'd insist on getting involved. No way could Faith drag Joni into that.
Steady, girl. Don't panic.
There was a good chance the hunky, nosy cop wouldn't connect her to the woman he'd met in a strip club months ago. For one thing, she had on tons less makeup. For another, she wasn't braless. She was just Joni's maid of honor.
Besides, he'd originally figured her for just another woman on the make, or perhaps even one of the off-duty strippers. No reason for him to have given her another thought.
Play this cool, leave at the first opportunity, and the cop would never guess they'd ever met.
"Surely you're not thinking of sneaking out without a dance with the best man?"
The husky male voice startled Faith. Poor timing. She'd already stepped out of the tent and was about to start down the path to the parked cars.
Except for a brief conversation when Leif had introduced them after the ceremony, she'd managed to avoid Travis all evening.
She flashed what she hoped was an innocent-looking smile. "I'm not sneaking anywhere. I've said my goodbyes to the happy couple."
"It's still early. The party is in full swing."
"Yes, but it's a long drive back to Dallas."
"So why drive it? The guest rooms in the newlyweds' ranch bungalow aren't fully finished yet, but I'm sure R.J. can put you up for the night. From what I've seen of his house, there are plenty of spare bedrooms."
"So I've heard. Joni invited me to stay over," Faith admitted. "But I really need to get home tonight."
The band returned from their break. A guitar strummed. The lead female singer in the country-and-western band that had kept the portable dance floor occupied all night belted out the first words to an old Patsy Cline hit.
Travis fitted a hand to the small of Faith's back. "One dance before you call it a night?"
Her brain issued a warning, but the music, the night and even the tiny lights that twinkled above them like stars overpowered her caution. Besides, Travis showed no sign of recognizing her. What could one dance hurt?
They walked back to the dance floor together. His arms slid around her, pulling her close as their bodies began to sway to the haunting ballad. His cheek brushed hers. An unfamiliar heat shimmered deep inside her. She dissolved into the sensual sensations for mere seconds before her brain kicked in again.
She hadn't felt a man's arms around her for years. No wonder her body had reacted to the contact.
She pulled away, putting an inch of space between her breasts and his chest and points lower. The warmth didn't fully dissipate, but her breathing came easier.
By the time they finished the dance, she was almost fully in control. "I really do have to go now," she said, leading the way as they left the dance floor.
"If you must."
"I must. And really, there's no reason for you to walk me to my car."
"A promise is a promise."
The man was persistent. If the cops handling Cornell's missing-person case had been half as determined, they likely would have located him by now.
"No reason for you to leave the reception," she said. "I'm sure I can find my way to my car on my own."
"But what kind of gentleman would I be if I let you?"
"A sensible one."
"Not my strong suit."
"I got here late and had to park in the pasture across the road. You'll get those gorgeous boots of yours dirty," she said.
"I'll risk it."
Further protests would sound ungrateful or just plain pigheaded. Besides, it would be a lot darker once they left the twinkling lights. Her car could be difficult to locate among all the other vehicles. Travis might just come in handy.
Reaching into the petite jeweled evening bag that swung from her shoulder, she took out the keys to her aging Honda and started walking. Their shoulders brushed. A zing of awareness shot through her.
Disgusted with herself for letting Travis affect her, she picked up her pace. Bad call. Maneuvering the grass and uneven ground in her six-inch stilettos proved to be a dangerous balancing act.
The second time she almost tripped, she was forced to accept the arm Travis offered for support. A traitorous flutter appeared in her stomach.
It had to be just her nerves, or the fact that Travis was several cuts above the perverts she'd been spending her time with. Not every night the way she had in the beginning, but every weekend.
A breeze stirred. Faith looked up and was struck by the brilliance of the stars now that they'd left the artificial illumination.
"Amazing, aren't they?" Travis said, apparently noticing her fascination with the heavens.
"Yes. Hard to believe those are the same stars that appear over Dallas. They look so much closer here."
"Nothing like getting out in the wide-open spaces to appreciate the splendor of nature," Travis agreed.
"Do you spend much time out here?"
"At the Dry Gulch? No way."
"I guess that will change now that Leif will be living out here."
"It won't change anytime soon."
"Because of your relationship with your father?"
"You got it. And you apparently know a lot more about me, Faith Ashburn, than I do about you."
"Joni told me a bit about why you and Leif have issues with R.J. But Leif changed his mind about his father. Perhaps you will, too."
"Sure, and Texas might vote to outlaw beef."