Alex Knight is dead -- or so everyone thinks. A widowed logger baron with a risk-taking streak, he took on a South American engineering project and was reported dead after a rebel attack. So when he turns up back in Maine very much alive, his grieving family is shocked. But the biggest shock is Alex's, when he discovers he's now married -- to a woman he's never met.
Sarah Banks is ready for a change from running a quiet Bed&Breakfast, and working for the Knight family offers not only a bigger opportunity, but also the family life she yearns for. So she's glad to help secure custody of Alex's orphaned children, whom she's come to love, by marrying their father by proxy before he's legally declared dead. But when Alex returns, the sexy, determined woodsman upends all of Sarah's plans. Because suddenly she's married to a passionate stranger with an easy smile...and tumbling headlong into a fiery dance of seduction.
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Alex Knight fought the fatigue weighing on his eyelids and brushed an unsteady hand through his hair in an attempt to wipe the fog from his brain. He needed to stay focused on the road ahead, to avoid the final irony of cheating death in the jungles of Brazil only to die in a car wreck less than ten miles from home. He rolled down the window of the rented sedan and sucked in the crisp November air, hoping the scent of fir and spruce and pine would perk him up. Not three days ago, he'd thought the rotting jungle would be the last thing he smelled and screaming monkeys the last thing he heard.
But he was home now, thanks to a healthy amount of luck and the determination not to die in that stinking jungle at the hands of some crazy rebel bastards. Well, luck and the thought of his father and brothers who needed him, and his two would-be orphaned children who needed him even more.
Alex came fully awake the moment he turned onto the Knights' private logging road, anticipation quickening his pulse and making his foot heavy on the gas as he passed the sign that said he was entering NorthWoods Timber land. Only eight miles of blessedly familiar gravel road, and he would be back in the bosom of his family.
Alex dodged frozen puddles as he picked up speed, guiding the car around a sweeping curve and thumping over the solid wooden bridge that crossed Oak Creek. He'd rebuilt that bridge two summers ago with Ethan and Paul, and he remembered the arguments he'd had with his brothers over the bridge's design. Ethan had wanted to use steel beams, Paul had wanted to make it single-laned, and Grady, their father and patriarch of their little clan, hadn't cared how it was built as long as it got done before a loaded logging truck ended up in the creek.
Alex frowned as he pushed the car recklessly faster. Where in hell was everyone, anyway? He had called home countless times from the U.S. embassy in Brazil three days ago; he'd tried again from Mexico yesterday, and yet again this morning when he'd landed in Maine. No one had answered, and this morning all he'd gotten was a mechanical voice saying the message machine was full.
Some homecoming this was going to be. He was back from the dead, dammit, and nobody knew it! The company he'd been working for in Brazil had told Alex they'd sent two men to Oak Grove eleven days ago, to tell his family he had been killed and that his body had likely been swept downriver when a murdering band of rebels had attacked the dam site where he'd been working as a road engineer. Which meant everyone should be home mourning their loss instead of running around the countryside, but it appeared that the five people he loved were about to miss his miraculous resurrection.
Alex slammed on the brakes when the dense forest suddenly opened to reveal a spectacular view of the lake, then waited for the frozen dust to settle as he stared out the open window. He sighed long and painfully hard, emotion welling in his chest at the sight of Frost Lake's northernmost cove stretching deep into the densely forested mountains. The view never failed to move him, and this morning it was especially sweet.
Completely unbidden, Alex remembered another homecoming ten years ago, when he'd brought home his bride. He'd stopped in this same spot, and they'd talked about their future -- Charlotte about her plans to update the lodge's kitchen and Alex about his hope to expand their landholdings by another hundred thousand acres within two years.
He shook his head at how naive he'd been at twenty-two. Or, rather, how blinded he'd been by Charlotte's beauty that he hadn't seen the dollar signs in her eyes. She'd left him and their two children five years later, once she had finally understood that profits went into land and equipment purchases and that redecorating meant only a new stove. Four months later Charlotte had died in a car wreck, leaving Alex a widower and the sole parent of Delaney and Tucker. Delaney was ten now, and Tucker had turned seven only three months ago.
Yes, marriage was one mistake he was in no hurry to repeat. He had his kids, his father and brothers, and their logging business; he had everything a man could hope for in life. A life he was getting a second chance at and would never take for granted again, Alex vowed as he stared at the Knight homestead, snuggled in a stand of old-growth pines three miles up the rocky shoreline.
He could just make out the dock jutting off the south side of the peninsula, and he noticed that the floatplane was gone. But there was smoke rising from the chimney of the seventy-year-old lodge, which meant someone was home. So why weren't they answering the phone?
Alex heard the 22-wheeler coming toward him just moments before he saw it, and he stepped on the gas and spun the sedan to the side of the road. He rolled up the window to avoid the dust storm that arrived along with the deafening blast of an air horn as the tractor-trailer loaded with sawlogs went speeding by.
It was Wednesday, Alex realized, so the crew was hauling today. And tomorrow was Thanksgiving, which meant Delaney and Tucker had this week off from school and that his father had likely taken them to Portland in the floatplane as he did every year. Grady must be trying to give his grieving grandchildren some sense of normality, hoping to get their minds off their loss for a little while. Ethan would have gone in Alex's place as their pilot, and Paul was likely taking advantage of having the house to himself, dealing with his own grief by sitting in front of a crackling fire with a lady friend.
Alex headed home with a grin, thinking about the little tryst he was about to walk in on. He soon turned off the main hauling artery and onto a narrow lane for the last mile of his fantastical journey, which had begun with the sound of gunshots thirteen days ago in the mountainous jungles of Brazil. He'd spent the next eleven days in that hellhole of a rain forest, trying to make his way down to civilization while hiding from the murdering rebels hunting for foreign hostages to fund their personal war. Then there'd been two days of embassy red tape and unanswered calls home, and all day yesterday and last night spent in a succession of airports as he made his way back to Maine.
Alex finally pulled into the yard at the back of the lodge, shut off the engine, and unfolded his aching six-foot-two body out of the rented sedan. He absently brushed down the front of the jacket he'd bought at the Cincinnati airport and scanned the dooryard with a frown. All four pickups were parked beside the machine shed, which meant the loggers working farther up the road were on their own. That wasn't unusual, as the experienced crew was more than capable of cutting and loading the pulp and timber onto the trucks without supervision.
So he must have guessed right: Grady and Ethan and the kids were gone in the floatplane, and Paul had shut off the phones to hide out with his girlfriend. Alex leapt over the single step onto the back porch but stopped with his hand on the screen door handle. Should he just barge in on them? He'd likely give his baby brother a heart attack.
Hell, Paul deserved a good scare for drowning his sorrow in the arms of a woman while he thought his brother was floating facedown in some jungle backwater. Alex opened the screen door with a grin of expectancy and twisted the doorknob to burst inside with all the drama of a returning ghost.
But his shout of hello ended with a grunt when he came to a halt against the solid wood door. Alex stepped back and rubbed his forehead as he twisted the knob again, only to realize that the damn thing was locked.
They never locked their doors! It was an unwritten code of the woods never to lock a house with a telephone inside in case of an emergency. Alex pounded on the door so hard he rattled its frame. "Paul!" he shouted. "Get the hell out of bed, Casanova! It's past noon! Paul!"
His only answer was silence.
"Paul, open up!"
"Dammit, don't make be break down this door!"
"Paul's not here," came a soft, barely audible reply.
It took Alex a good five seconds to realize the voice he'd heard was female, and several more seconds to notice the face peeking from a crack in the curtain of a nearby window.
He stepped over and grinned down at the unfamiliar brown eyes staring up at him. "Where's Paul?" he asked in a more civil tone.
"He's in Augusta, lobbying against a tree-harvesting bill."
"And who are you?"
"Mrs.?" Alex repeated, straightening in surprise. "You're married to Paul?"
She gave a small shake of her head.
"Ethan?" he whispered. "Ethan got married?"
She shook her head again.
He took another step back. "You married Grady!"
Her eyes widened at his shout, and she violently shook her head with a yelped "No!"
Alex stepped up to the window and bent at the waist to put his eyes level with hers, finding a perverse pleasure in seeing her lean away and the curtain close. "Then who in hell did you marry, lady? There are no more Knights."
"I married Grady's oldest son, Alex. I -- I'm his widow."
Alex reared back with a frown, momentarily wondering if he was still in the jungle and this was some sort of delirious nightmare. Either that, or he had hadn't heard right.
Alex scrubbed his face and sucked in a calming breath. "Lady," he said evenly, "Alex Knight left here five months ago to work in Brazil, and he was not married when he got on the plane."
A tiny crack appeared in the curtain again, just enough for him to see one large brown eye. "We were married a week ago this past Monday by proxy, by Judge Elroy Rogers," she said, her stilted voice sounding as if she were repeating a well-rehearsed line. "But then last Thursday, his father was told that Alex had been killed. Paul will be back tomorrow. If you want to talk to him, you'll have to come back then."
The curtain closed, and Alex saw the shadow of a small body move away from the window. He could only stand there in utter disbelief. He'd been married by proxy nine days ago? Then declared dead three days later?
But the men from the company he worked for had come here eleven days ago, they'd told Alex at the embassy, and his father had known Saturday that he was dead. So how in hell had Alexander Knight gotten married the following Monday? And by proxy. That wasn't even legal, was it?
The hell he was married! The little impostor was lying. Alex stepped back to the door and pounded on it again. "Open up!" he shouted, this time making even the windows rattle. "I swear I'll call the sheriff if you don't open this door."
"I already called him," she said from the window. "So you better leave right now."
Alex immediately moved back to the window, but instead of a pair of frightened eyes looking out, he found the business end of a shotgun pointing through the curtain. He choked on a laugh. He must be lying facedown in the rotting jungle, raging with fever. He was not standing on the back porch of his own damn house, having his own damn shotgun pointed at him by a woman he had married by proxy two days after he was supposed to have died.
The gun barrel clinked against the glass. "You better leave if you don't want Sheriff Tate to haul you off in handcuffs," she warned, her suggestion sounding more desperate than threatening.
"It'll take John an hour to get here," Alex snapped, placing his hands on his hips as he faced the window. He recognized his old shotgun by the missing sight on the tip of the barrel and knew the damn thing didn't have a firing pin. "And when John does show up, you'll be the one leaving in handcuffs." A thought suddenly struck him. "Hey, what's your first name?"
"It -- it's Sarah."
"Sarah," he repeated. "Sarah Banks, the housekeeper Grady hired this summer? You came back from the coast with him at the end of their vacation." Alex dropped his hands to his sides, his indignation evaporating on a relieved sigh. "Sarah, it's okay. I'm Alex Knight, Delaney and Tucker's dad. They told me all about you in their letters and phone calls. How you ran the bed-and-breakfast they stayed at on Crag Island last August, and how my father talked you into coming back with them to keep house for us. It's okay, Sarah. I know all about you, because it's me, Alex."
The shotgun barrel lowered only inches. "You're not Alex Knight!" she denied. "Alex died in Brazil six days ago."
"Go get my picture off the mantel," he said, stepping back and unzipping his jacket. "Go on, get it so you can see for yourself."
The curtain closed, and Alex saw her shadow disappear into the kitchen. He took off his jacket and smoothed down the front of his rumpled shirt, combed his fingers through his overlong brown hair, then straightened his shoulders and waited. The curtain finally opened again, this time with a small picture frame appearing against the glass, and Alex realized that Sarah was comparing him to his photo.
"I've lost a good twenty pounds, and I haven't shaved in three days," he pointed out. "But look past the cuts and bruises on my face. My eyes, Sarah. They're the same. And my nose and jaw," he said, lifting his hand to rub his stubbled cheek. "It's me, Alexander James Knight. And I'm not dead."
The curtain closed, the shadow disappeared again, and Alex was left standing for what seemed like several minutes before he finally heard the dead bolt softly click. He stepped back to the door, opened the screen, and turned the knob to step inside.
Sarah stood across the kitchen near the swinging door leading into the great room, her large doe eyes framed by a porcelain face as white as new-fallen snow. She was still holding the shotgun, though it was pointed at the floor now instead of him, and Alex knew he really was in the jungle, delirious with fever and having a dream beyond his wildest fantasy. If this was what the angel of death looked like, he would follow her into hell itself.
She was beautiful. Utterly, stunningly perfect. From her long, lustrous hair the color of sunshine framing her china-doll face, down every inch of her petite but definitely well-endowed body, the woman was a vision of feminine perfection.
He should probably say something instead of just staring like an awestruck teenager, but for the life of him, Alex couldn't find his voice. For one insane but vividly imaginative moment, he wished he really were married to her. What in hell had his father been thinking, bringing this package of female perfection home to three bachelors?
"You can set down the shotgun," he said softly. "It doesn't have a firing pin." He frowned. "Don't you know that pointing a useless gun at someone is the best way to get yourself shot? If I had been an intruder, I could have been armed."
He hadn't thought it was possible, but Sarah paled even more. Alex set his jacket on the bench by the door, ran his hands through his hair with a calming sigh, and stepped all the way into the kitchen.
"Sarah," he said when she stepped back against the swinging door to the great room, making it open. "I really am Alex Knight, so there's nothing to be afraid of. I just want to take a long hot shower, eat most of whatever that is I smell cooking, and sleep until my kids get home."
"They don't know you're alive," she whispered. She leaned the shotgun against the wall without taking her gaze off his, her face flushing with color as she raised her hands to her cheeks. "Delaney and Tucker don't know you're alive! And Grady! Oh, my God, you've got to call them!" She rushed to the kitchen table and picked up a piece of paper that she held toward him. "This is the hotel they're staying at in Portland. You need to let them know you're not dead!"
He was finally getting somewhere. Her concern for Delaney and Tucker had overridden her shock, and she slid the portable phone across the table to him, tossing the paper down beside it when the stove timer started buzzing.
"Call them," she said, rushing to the stove and picking up a pair of oven mitts. She was bent over to lift something from the oven -- and Alex was admiring the view -- when the wail of a siren suddenly pierced the air. "Oh, no," she squeaked, turning with a pie in her hands, her stricken gaze darting to Alex. "That's Sheriff Tate."
Alex also turned as the sheriff's cruiser came to a stop mere inches from the porch in a cloud of spitting gravel. John Tate was out of the car before it finished rocking, one hand on his holster and his eyes pinned on the screen door.
"Step out of the house, mister," John ordered, drawing his weapon. "Now!"
Alex used his toe to push open the screen door, stepped onto the porch with his hands raised, and smiled at his friend.
"Sarah!" John hollered. "Sarah, where are you?"
"She's taking pies out of the oven, John," Alex told him. "And this, my friend, is not the welcome home I was expecting."
John straightened from his threatening stance and squinted through the sun reflecting off the settling dust. "A-Alex?" he whispered.
Alex nodded but kept his hands raised. "How many of our trucks did you run off the road?" he asked. "You must have set a speed record getting out here -- unless you were hunting deer at one of our old cuttings again."
"Alex?" John repeated, a bit stronger this time, lowering his gun. "But Grady said you were dead!"
Alex dropped his hands and shook his head. "Almost. But it'll take more than a few crazy bastards to finish me off." He touched a cut on his forehead. "Though the jungle nearly did me in."
John holstered his gun, leapt onto the porch, and gave Alex a hug that would have strangled a bear. "My God, man, it's good to see you," he said, his voice raw with emotion as he slapped Alex's back. John suddenly stepped away and looked toward the kitchen. "Sarah?" he asked, moving his gaze back to Alex.
"She's fine, though I think I scared two years off her life." Alex broke into a grin. "You been trying to work up the nerve to ask out our housekeeper, Tate?" Alex threw his arm over John's shoulder to guide him inside. "Don't wait too long, my friend, or I just might beat you to it," he added softly as they walked into the kitchen. "Sarah, was that an apple pie you pulled out of the oven?"
But before Sarah could answer, John moved to stand between them, facing Alex with a look of confusion. "You okay, Sarah?" he asked without looking at her. "The dispatcher said you sounded frightened and that someone was trying to break in."
"I'm okay, Officer Tate," she said, going to the cupboard and taking down two plates. "I just didn't recognize Mr. -- ah -- Alex at first." She pulled two forks from a drawer, set them on the counter, then started cutting the pie. "It's going to be messy because it's still hot," she warned with her back to them, her long blond hair hiding her face.
What in hell was going on here? Officer Tate? Was Sarah trying to pretend there was nothing going on between her and John? "Have a seat, John," Alex said, pulling a chair from the table and sitting down, then using his foot to shove another chair out for his friend. "And tell me how many people showed up for my funeral." He gave John a guileless smile. "I did have a service, didn't I?"
His old high-school buddy paled and slowly shook his head. "Grady scheduled it for next Wednesday."
Alex kicked out the chair a little farther and motioned for John to sit down. "Good," he said. "I didn't miss it, then. You suppose Clay Porter will show up?"
John finally sat at the table with a relieved grin. "Porter will likely be the first one there, and not leave until after he spits on your grave."
Sarah brought over two heaping plates of pie, set them in front of the men, then rushed back to the stove when a different timer started buzzing on the counter. She shut it off, opened the oven door with her mitts, and pulled out a large covered pan from the bottom rack -- this time while both men enjoyed the view, Alex noticed.
But the smell tickling his nose finally got the best of him, and Alex picked up his fork and looked at his plate. Honest to God, he hadn't known so many apples could fit in one piece of pie. Dispensing with manners, Alex drove his fork into the center, leaned down to meet his hand halfway, and shoveled the dripping, crust-covered apple into his mouth. He didn't even wait until he was done chewing to repeat the process, and only after his third mouthful did he notice John staring at him.
"It's been five months since I've had apple pie," Alex defended while chewing. He patted his belly with his free hand. "And I've got twenty pounds to gain back."
"Where have you been for the last six days?" John asked. "Grady said your work site was attacked by rebels last Thursday and that you were killed."
"Thirteen days," Alex corrected after swallowing another mouthful. "They attacked thirteen days ago, and I spent the next eleven days trying to get back to civilization without getting captured or eaten by jungle beasts."
"Thirteen?" John repeated, glancing over his shoulder at Sarah, whose back stiffened.
What in hell was going on here? John was acting more confounded than a teenager in a whorehouse.
A sense of dread suddenly shot through Alex, making the pie he'd eaten settle like lead. "Sarah?" he said, then waited until she looked at him. "How come you called yourself Mrs. Knight when I showed up? Did Grady tell you to say that to strangers to give you some security when you're alone here?"
Her large brown eyes just stared at him.
"She is Mrs. Knight," John interjected, drawing Alex's attention. "You were married a week ago this past Monday."
"I was running for my life a week ago Monday."
"By proxy," John clarified. "Grady told everyone in town that Judge Rogers married you and Sarah in his chambers the same day Sarah adopted Delaney and Tucker."
"She what?" Alex bolted up from his chair, sending it skidding across the floor as he turned to Sarah.
John also stood and moved to stand between them again, his expression even more confounded. His eyes suddenly narrowed. "You didn't know," he whispered, glancing over his shoulder at Sarah, who was now pressed against the counter, her hands gripping her apron and her eyes as big as silver dollars. John looked back at Alex. "That wily old bastard," he said, shaking his head. "Grady told everyone that you met Sarah last spring when you went to check out Crag Island for their summer vacation. And that you decided not to wait until you got home from Brazil and married her by proxy last Monday."
"I spent two weeks in Brazil last spring, looking over the dam site," Alex said evenly, glaring at Sarah before turning his glare on John. "I had never even heard of Crag Island until Dad told me where he was taking the family this past summer."
John rubbed the back of his neck and frowned. "Then he must have been trying to protect Delaney and Tucker," he thought out loud. "You said he'd been told you were dead on Saturday?" John asked, and Alex nodded. "So he didn't say anything until after he got Sarah married to you, so she could adopt the kids. Then he waited three days to announce your death."
"Protect them from what? I made a will before I left, giving custody of Delaney and Tucker to Ethan if anything happened to me."
John cocked his head, his expression speculative. "To protect them from your in-laws, maybe?" he offered. "We all know Charlotte's parents would have contested your will and come after those kids. Hell, they tried to get custody of them when Charlotte died. Grady must have talked Rogers into fudging the paperwork, to marry you to Sarah before word of your death got out. That would have given your in-laws less of a chance in a custody battle."
Both men looked at Sarah, who was clutching her stomach, her face blanched with worry.
"Y-you can't tell anyone, Mr. Tate," she said, her gaze darting to Alex, then back to John. "If the truth gets out, Grady will get in trouble for forging all those papers. And it could end Judge Rogers's career." She stepped closer, looking directly at Alex. "We thought you were dead, and Sheriff Tate is right. Grady was afraid your late wife's parents would come after your children, and he didn't want Delaney and Tucker to be put through any more upset."
"So he married me to you and then had you adopt them?" Alex whispered, unable to believe what he was hearing. The terror of the jungle was nothing compared to the mess he'd just walked into.
His father, along with their good friend Judge Elroy Rogers, not to mention their equally guilty housekeeper, would be brought up on charges if he didn't go along with this insane -- though amazingly inventive -- conspiracy. And his kids would be dragged through even more trauma.
"Grady was desperate," Sarah said, taking another step closer. "He was only thinking of the children."
"And you?" Alex asked ever so softly, as anger born of desperation tightened his chest. "Were you thinking about my children, Sarah? Or were you picturing a real nice future here as my widow?"
"That's uncalled for," John said, stepping between them again. "She's not Charlotte, Alex."
Alex turned on John. "No? Then exactly who is she?"
"Your wife," John snapped, tucking his thumbs into his belt and glaring right back at him. "At least until Grady gets home and you can decide what to do about this...this..." John's defenses suddenly crumbled, and he shot Alex one last confounded look before he turned to Sarah. "I won't say a word to anyone, I promise," he told her. "The way I see it, this is a personal matter, and no one's business but your own."
"Thank you," she said with a nod, turning back to the counter. "I'm going for a walk," she suddenly said, taking off her apron as she changed direction. And with her head down so that her hair hid her face, she scurried past John and Alex and onto the porch and ran into the yard.
Both men were left standing in silence, staring out the screen door as it banged shut.
John softly whistled through his teeth, looked over at Alex, and shrugged. "Well, my friend," he said with a sheepish grin. "I'm damn glad you're home safe and sound, though I don't know whether to feel sorry for you or envious."
Alex stepped up to the screen door to watch Sarah run down a narrow path into the woods. "Neither do I, Tate. Dammit to hell, what has Dad gotten me into?" he asked, staring at the spot where his wife had disappeared.
Copyright © 2006 by Janet Chapman