How to resist such an uncompromisingly sexy man? Julia had fought so long to keep her identity, how could she allow herself to be swept into Dylan's conflicting world where secrets, scandals and the sensual danger of becoming his wife awaited her?
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Dylan Trueno had finally found her. And he wasn't letting her go.
Not this time.
Determined to make his point, he stared straight into her eyes, making her catch a stunned breath.
Instant recognition, he thought. The reoccurrence of a time-bomb attraction.
They stood face to face in the doorway of a cozy old house on the Rocking Horse Refuge. Dylan had been searching for her for eight months, and today he'd hit pay dirt.
He moved a little closer, and she took a step back. Just seconds ago, she'd answered the door to find him standing there, flinching at the sight of him.
She didn't say anything and neither did he. He kept staring at her, piercing her with his gaze. She wore a floral-printed blouse and slim-fitting jeans with a frayed hemline. Her face was devoid of makeup and her jewelry consisted of a simple gold cross.
He thought she looked much too lean, as if she'd lost weight since the last time he'd seen her, as if she'd been to hell and back.
But he knew she had.
Trapped, she glanced away and fidgeted with the ends of her hair. It was blonde now, but she was still the same girl who'd purposely disappeared.
"Julia," he finally said.
"My name is Janie Johnson," she replied, using her alias, pretending to be someone else. "But my boss calls me JJ."
Dylan assumed she worked for the old man who owned the refuge. "I spoke with Henry on the phone, and he's expecting me."
"He told me we were having company. A famous horse trainer. But I didn't even think—"
"That it would be me?" He wanted to reach out, to hold her, to lift her into his arms like he'd done before. But he kept his hands to himself. "This isn't a coincidence. I came here looking for you."
"You're mistaken. I'm not Julia."
"Yes, you are. We both know you are."
Silence stretched between them, and Dylan cursed beneath his breath. Finding her had become his relentless pursuit. And now that he'd located her, she denied being Julia.
Her stubbornness struck a frustrated chord. She wasn't supposed to mess with his emotions. She wasn't supposed to twist him out of shape, to contort every gut-clenching part of his life.
But she did.
Because he wanted her. He didn't care if they were practically strangers. That wasn't an issue for him. They'd shared a moment in time that went beyond logic.
The day they'd met, he thought. The day she'd cried in his arms. The day she'd almost kissed him.
"Why is Henry expecting you?" she asked suddenly.
"To discuss the fundraiser you're having."
"You lied to him? You offered to get involved?"
"I needed an excuse to look for you, to see if you were here. Would you have preferred that I told him the truth? Besides, you're lying to him, too." He challenged her, baiting her to admit who she was.
She did, in a disturbing way. "Henry knows me as JJ, and that's who I want to be."
"It's too late for that."
"Not if you go away." She fussed with her hair again, making the ends flutter, like wheat in the wind.
"Not if you leave."
"I can't do that." He intended to take her home.
But first he had to tell her about her mother, to be the bearer of pain-packed news, something he would always despise himself for. "Come outside with me. I have to talk to you."
Just then, a graveled voice sounded in the background. "JJ, is that our guest?"
She paused, got a panicked look in her eyes. Like a doe caught in the sites of a rifle, she went anxiety-ridden still, imploring Dylan to protect her identity.
For now, he agreed. "We'll talk later." The last thing he wanted was for her to get the urge to bolt, to run away.
She nodded, and within seconds, Henry appeared. He was a kind, crusty cowboy, with a bent body and a craggy-lined face.
He greeted Dylan, shaking his hand a bit too vigorously. The old man seemed excited to meet him. Of course Dylan had acquired a level of fame. He traveled extensively in his line of work, and western riders from all over the country paid top dollar to attend his clinics and demonstrations.
Henry invited him inside, escorting him to a small, homespun parlor. Dylan took the chair closest to Julia and focused his attention on her, determined to stay by her side.
To not lose her again.
JJ's mind whirred like a tornado. Could she do this? Could she sit across from Dylan and pretend that he didn't affect her?
He looked exactly the way she remembered him. He was dressed in a denim jacket, Wrangler jeans and a silver-and-turquoise belt buckle that glimmered at his waist. He wore his rain-straight onyx-colored hair to his shoulders, and a western hat rested on his head.
A cowboy, she thought. An Indian. A man who'd invaded her dreams. A man she'd clung to a little too deeply.
He lifted the brim of his hat, revealing an even deeper, more intense expression.
A connection to Julia. To the woman she used to be. "JJ is my Girl Friday," Henry said, interrupting her thoughts. "She's my part-time housekeeper, personal assistant and events planner. She helps with the horses, too."
"I'm impressed," Dylan responded.
"Thank you." JJ fought to keep her voice steady, to fake her way through this.
Dylan held her gaze, and the next bout of silence was deafening.
Like a chemistry project that was about to explode. JJ released a shaky breath, and Henry became aware of the tension. He watched her and Dylan, closely, scooting to the edge of the sofa.
Not that Henry was clueless. He'd agreed to pay her wages in cash, suspecting that she was running from her past, even if he never probed her about it.
JJ wasn't the only drifter at the Rocking Horse Refuge. Henry didn't just take in abused and abandoned horses. He catered to troubled people, as well, letting his employees keep their secrets.
Henry kept watching them, and JJ counted the seconds in her mind. One. Two. Three. Henry wouldn't remain quiet for long.
"What's going on?" he blurted. "Are you two sweet on each other? Did you know each other before?"
Dylan glanced at JJ, and her heart trembled. Henry thought she and Dylan were former lovers. That he was the reason she'd run away.
The famous horse trainer kept silent, neither affirming nor denying the romantic allegation.
Nervous, she turned to her boss. She wasn't about to admit that on the day Dylan had swept her into his arms, on the day he'd rescued her from a kidnapping, she'd almost kissed him, almost let the tenderness erupt into passion.
"This isn't what you think, Henry." She paused and chewed her bottom lip, tasting the waxy balm she wore.
"You sure about that?" he queried.
The old man frowned, furrowing his thin gray brows. He wasn't buying it. But neither was she. She remembered everything about Dylan: the breadth of his shoulders, the silkiness of his hair, the scent of hay and horses mingling with the faded note of his aftershave.
Dylan finally spoke. "It's time to talk," he told JJ. And to Henry, he added, "I'd like to be alone with her. It's important."
Her boss kept frowning. "I can see that it is."
JJ gave into the inevitable, agreeing to have a private conversation with Dylan. As she headed for the front door, Henry sent her a reassuring nod. He would be waiting.
Dylan followed her, and their footsteps echoed on wooden planks. The weather-beaten porch wrapped around the house like a rugged embrace. The Rocking Horse Refuge was located at the foot of a mountainous Nevada region, a place with grassy valleys and forested slopes. In the distance, the highest peak whitened the horizon with snow.
She glanced at the graveled driveway and foliage-draped yard. A snakelike chill coiled in the breeze, creating leaf-laden dust devils.
Dylan removed his jacket and handed it to her. "You forgot your coat."
She accepted his jacket, wishing that she didn't long to feel the roughhewn fabric against her skin, to inhale his scent.
"I've been searching for you since you ran away. My brother and my cousin are P.I.s, and I hired them to investigate your case and consult with the FBI. I know all about your phony ID." He watched her slip her arms into the denim sleeves. "But you don't have to keep hiding, to keep pretending to be JJ."
"Why? Because you found me?"
"Because the loan sharks who kidnapped you won't be able to hurt you again. They've been caught." His tone turned even more serious. "There was a hit man who was arrested, too."
Her knees nearly buckled. "What are you talking about? I was kidnapped to scare my mom into paying her gambling debt."
"I know. But after you and your mom took off, they put a contract on both of you."
Oh, God. She reached back, feeling for a chair, for a place to sit. Once she found it, she lowered herself onto the rickety wood. "Mom and I had a fight. We parted ways two months ago." She searched Dylan's gaze and saw an uneasy condolence in his eyes. "My mother is dead, isn't she?"
He sat next to her, taking an equally rickety chair. It creaked from his weight. "Yes, Miriam is gone. I'm so sorry, Julia."
Dizzy, confused, lost in sudden grief, she corrected him. "JJ. I'm still JJ."
"Not to me."
"I'm no one to you, Dylan. We met by accident." His voice turned rough. "I buried your mother. I had a service for her."
Guilt assaulted her hard and fast, and she hugged his jacket, pulling it tighter around her body. "I shouldn't have argued with Mom. I shouldn't have left her." She rocked in her chair, feeling sick inside. "Was she shot? Is that how she died?"
The sickness remained. "Thank you for taking responsibility for her. You weren't obligated to do that."
"I convinced the FBI that I was. That Miriam needed me."
Because there was no one else, she thought. Besides JJ, her mother didn't have any family.
She didn't want to picture the woman who'd raised her being struck by a bullet, but the crimson-stained image presented itself, ripping into her mind, tearing at her conscience. "Where did you bury her?"