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The Forbidden Brother

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It was kismet.

Normally, Jillian wasn’t the kind of woman who jumped on the fairy-tale bandwagon. Cancer had shredded every last romantic notion she had about the world and her place in it. These days, she was a realist. A pragmatist.

But how else could she view this man’s suggestion that she choose a new adventure with him, at a time in her life when she was desperately rewriting her personal script to embrace new challenges? She owed her sanity and maybe even her physical health to that list of life adventures she’d written.

So for Carson McNeill to somehow tap into the deepest hunger of her soul and suggest they throw out the rule book, Jillian knew there had to be some kind of cosmic destiny at work. Call it providence, or maybe luck. Surely she could table her business agenda—just for a little while—to pursue this off-the-charts attraction? Once he’d rolled out the idea of an adventure, her personal mantra this year, Jillian saw it as a gauntlet thrown down by the hand of fate.

She was powerless to refuse.

To say nothing of how deeply attracted she felt to the man. She hadn’t experienced the shimmering warmth of desire coating her skin this way since...ever. There was no precedent for the wobbly feeling in her knees. The light-headedness and the tingle over her scalp. The rest of the barroom faded away.

Her business with the McNeills would have to wait.

And if this turned out to be a mistake, she’d have to find another way to get to Cody McNeill that didn’t involve this very charismatic brother.

Simply put, if she didn’t say yes to this moment, she would regret it forever.

“Yes,” she answered him. Smoothing her hands over his flannel shirt, Jillian let herself inch a fraction closer. “I’m game.”

It would be an adventure, but a safe one. She had her own car parked outside. She would text a friend her whereabouts. Besides, she had the reassurance that Carson McNeill was a respected member of the ranching community. A well-known, well-liked local. She’d scanned his entire social media profile just moments ago.

His masculine smile of triumph made her toes curl, sending an answering heat smoking through her.

“I can’t wait to kiss you,” he whispered in her ear. The brush of his mouth so close to her neck was tantalizing.

“I like where this is going.” She swayed to the music there in the corner of the bar, the scents of beer and wings distracting her from the occasional hint of his aftershave when she got close enough to him. She thought about tucking her head against his chest and breathing him in, but she was already pushing the envelope. “Even though this would be the first time I’ve ever kissed a total stranger.”

“I’m going to be heartbroken if you’re backing out of this adventure already.” The deep tone of his voice vibrated in her chest, making her tremble.

Another couple joined them; the woman who’d been sitting at the bar earlier tugged a rough-looking cowboy onto the floor with her. Their weaving, unsteady dance made Jillian’s partner tighten his grip protectively, his hand splayed low on her spine.

Her heart rate quickened, her breasts brushing against his chest, sending an ache through her.

“Not a chance. Besides, I already know some things about you,” she reasoned, recognizing that she couldn’t get much nearer to this man without appearing positively indecent. Their thighs grazed together now and again, the contact reminding her how long it had been since her legs had tangled with a man’s.

Too. Damn. Long.

“Is that so?”

“You like dive bars.” She wondered why he’d come here alone. All his photos online showed him surrounded by friends—men, women, employees, coworkers.

“And redheads.” Gently, he tugged one of her newly grown spiral curls, a hint of a grin playing at the corner of his lips. “Actually, I never knew how much I liked this fiery color of hair until tonight.”

His gaze seemed to follow his fingers as he toyed with the ringlet for another moment, and her heart faltered at the sweetness of the gesture. Or maybe it was simply the affirmation that he enjoyed the crazy curls she didn’t dare tame with hair product, fearful she would somehow lose the fragile regrowth.

Her throat dried up again. This night and this man were was making her feel things. Arousal. Romance. A giant dose of normal. She blinked fast to banish the sudden rush of emotion, unwilling to ruin things with an attack of weepiness. She would enjoy every second, damn it. Except the wellspring of feelings was already bubbling.

Gratitude for her new lease on life.

Joy in the simple warmth of a man’s caress.

And yes, the return of physical longing, a keen hunger for more.

Unsure what to do with all that, and worried she would do something mortifying—like burst into tears on the side of the dance floor—Jillian rose on her toes and channeled all the sentimental burn into a kiss.

She could tell she’d surprised him. For a split second, he went absolutely still. Was he thinking she was crazy? Sex-starved? She closed her eyes to shut out those fears and simply let herself concentrate on the feel of his mouth on hers. The bristle of his jaw against her skin. The contrasting softness of his lips, which were full and sensual. He smelled like cedar and pine, woodsy and earthy, as if he’d been outdoors all day.

Just when she would have pulled back, however, the kiss changed. He became fully engaged, taking over her tentative efforts, which had been more about hiding her emotions. He pulled her into him, anchoring her body with his while he let his hands and tongue roam.

An onslaught of sudden, acute physical awareness put a stop to all her distracting emotions. His new command of the kiss allowed her to follow his lead, just like when they’d danced. Her head tipped back, her knees gave way. She wound her arms around his neck to hold herself steady, and to feel the full impact of his hard, muscular body.

Lost in the moment, she arched into him. Hip to hip, breast to chest. She needed full contact and she needed it now. Maybe he could tell as much, because he broke away from her suddenly, staring down at her while expelling his breath in a rush. With his hands on her shoulders, he steadied them both, since he seemed as surprised by the moment as she was.

The music had changed. A more modern country rock tune blared from the speakers and they were alone on the dance floor again. A waitress sidled past with a trayful of food; the scents of tabasco and beer were heavy in the air.

All that was secondary to the desire coursing through Jillian’s body like wildfire, the red-hot sensation that was totally foreign, since her libido had been on ice for over a year.

“You see that door over there?” he asked, tipping his forehead so close to hers they almost touched.

She followed his gaze to the exit marked Private.

“Mmm.” She nodded, since her voice wasn’t working. Her lips were more inclined to kiss than speak.

“My offices are just through there and up a staircase.”

“You work in the bar?” She didn’t think that could be true. Wasn’t he a successful rancher with considerable acreage?

“I bought the building and rent the space to Wrangler’s. I’m remodeling the upper floors for...

my business.” He hedged about his line of work.

But of course, she already knew what he did for a living.

“How convenient to work close to a bar you like,” she observed, not sure what else to say. Her thoughts were muddled from the kiss.

She wanted another one.

“It is,” he agreed. “But right now, I’m thinking about how much privacy we could have for another kiss, on the other side of that door.”

“Oh.” That was logic she could follow. “Yes. Just let me grab my purse.”

He scanned the bar, his gaze halting on the table where she’d left her bag, while she reached into her pocket for her phone. She texted a quick message to a friend to let her know where she was, taking basic safety precautions.

But if there was another kiss on the table, Jillian was taking it. And if that meant entering the backroom of a dive bar in a building Carson McNeill owned, that didn’t deter her in the slightest. Her whole body hummed from his touch. She felt vitally alive, and that was a gift that neither her recovery nor the group counseling sessions she’d attended afterward had given her.

“Are you sure?” He paused and frowned down at her before they reached her table.

Perhaps he’d seen her text.

“I’m positive.” She craved the adrenaline high his touch inspired. Thirsted for the physical contact that ignited sensations all over her body. Even before her chemo days, she hadn’t experienced the kind of tantalizing thrill that contact with him provided.

Darting toward the booth, she retrieved her satchel. “Okay.” She tried to restrain herself from leaping into his arms. Plastering herself to him. “I’m ready.”

She didn’t want to worry about work or filming on Cody McNeill’s ranch anymore tonight. She just wanted to follow this adventurous path Carson had proposed, and hope it led her back toward joy and health. Well-being and wholeness.

Taking her by the hand, he drew her with him across the bar, past the dance floor and through the exit marked Private. He flipped a switch and an overhead lamp threw the space into view. As he closed the door behind them, Jillian’s gaze immediately went to the vast office, which was still under construction.

The exposed brick walls and bamboo floors had been cleaned and restored. A staircase with dark slats and a thick, Craftsman-style handrail led upward, the mirror on the landing reflecting the dull light of silver pendant lamps. The beautifully detailed hammered-tin ceiling tiles looked original.

But she didn’t have a chance to compliment him on the remodeling project in progress. He stalked toward her, his intent gaze rising from her mouth to her eyes. Her pulse quickened as she remembered why they were here.

The music from the jukebox drifted in through the open door. The rest of the world was close, but not close enough to see what was happening in here. He paused near her, took off his Stetson and settled it on a wrought-iron hook beside the door. She could see his eyes better now that the brim wasn’t casting a shadow. Jillian let her satchel fall to the floor with a soft thud. Her eyes remained on Carson. The stranger she knew.

Then his hand was cupping her face, tilting her chin. Her eyelids fell, the sensations coming so fast and fierce she needed to focus simply on what she was feeling.

His kiss chased off any reservations she might have had, providing instant clarity about what she wanted. Desire shot through her; it felt like going up too fast in an elevator. Her knees almost buckled, and her whole body was seized with dizzying sensations. She reached to steady herself against him and ended up molded to the hard expanse of his muscles, from her hips to her breasts.

Her instincts took over. Winding her arms around his neck, she sought a closer connection.

For a moment, he kissed her harder. Deeper. She sucked air into her lungs in hard pants when he finally angled back, breaking the kiss to study her.

“Are you okay with this?” he asked, his thumbs stroking lazy circles on her shoulders through the thin fabric of her blouse.

She wanted more than a kiss, she knew now. Much, much more.

“Better than okay.” She laid her palm on his cheek. Willed him to understand what she needed.

Connection. Affirmation. Him.

His jaw flexed; his breathing was as labored as hers. Then he backed her into the wall and she vaguely registered the rough brick against her spine for a moment before he hooked an arm under her hips and hefted her higher. The action slid her along the rigid length of—

Oh. My.

She ran her fingers through his thick dark hair, clearing a path to his ear so she could whisper, “Don’t stop.”

* * *

Her soft plea undid him.

Up until that moment, Cody had been doing his damnedest to keep the explosive attraction in check. He’d made sure she was on board with what was happening between them. Helped her to feel safe and in control at all times. There was a bar full of people—well, a few people—just on the other side of the door.

But now?

She was like an out-of-control blaze in his arms. The chemistry was blistering. And her quiet, insistent “Don’t stop” torched the last shreds of his restraint.

Cupping her sweet curves in his hands, he brought the juncture of her thighs against his rock-hard erection, feeling the heat of her right through her long skirt. With the flip of his belt buckle, he could be inside her in no time.

“Please,” she murmured against his neck, kissing her way down his throat as she tugged at his T-shirt. “I have a clean bill of health. No partners since my last checkup.” She stopped kissing him long enough to glance up at him.

His short bark of laughter surprised him. Hell, she surprised him with the glimpses of an efficient woman beneath the passionate kisses.

“Me, too.” He set her back on her feet. “And thank you for that. I have protection somewhere. A bathroom upstairs, I think.” He’d stocked the basics, since he’d spent a few nights here overseeing the construction work when it had run late into the night.

“I have one,” she blurted, scrambling to retrieve the patchwork bag she’d dropped on the floor. “I bought it when I—well, in a fit of optimism.” She combed through the papers and electronics in her satchel. A bright pink pair of earbuds and a lipstick tube spilled out. “Here.”

She stood back up and stuffed a foil packet into his right hand, then launched herself into his arms. He wanted to move them upstairs where there was a sofa, but her fingers made quick work of his belt and the button fly, scrambling the last of his good intentions as she stroked him lightly.

“Hold on to me.” The words were a brusque command as he lifted her against him, a thigh in each hand as he helped her to wrap his legs around him. With her secured that way, he stepped close enough to the door to lock it.

She took the forgotten condom from him while he backed her against the door, a smoother surface than the brick wall. With her pinned there, he used a hand to tug her skirt higher. Out of the way.

She was in the process of tearing open the packet when he touched her through the silk of her panties, finding her hot and ready for him. He withdrew the condom from her, rolling it into place. His pulse pounded in his temples, the need for her an undeniable urge. A fierce ache. He wanted to take more time, touch her until an orgasm simmered through her. But her restless hands roved over him, peeling away his shirt and undershirt, tracing down his spine, spearing through his hair. Her hips bucked, and the slide of her soft, feminine center against his rigid length threatened to take his knees right out from under him.

Being inside her was his only option.

Slipping her panties aside, he entered her, slowly. Her fingers flexed against his arms, her nails gently biting into his skin as she held herself still. Head thrown back, she parted her lips on a sigh of pleasure. Her cheeks flushed deep pink, her lashes fluttering as she started to move with him.

The feel of her all around him was the sexiest high he could remember. From her boots hooked around his waist to her blouse sliding off one shoulder, she was all in. Her honeysuckle scent called to him, and he licked her tender skin while he buried himself deep inside her. Over and over again.

He held back when he could tell she was close. Her cheeks went from pink to small spots of red, her breath hitched and her hips went still. He slipped a hand down to touch her intimately, caressing tender circles right...there.

She came apart in his arms with a cry of pleasure that brought his release surging right afterward. Heat blasted his shoulders as sweat popped along his spine. The sensation went on and on, pummeling him, wringing everything from him. She clung to him, shifting against him as the aftershocks rocked her.

“Carson.” She breathed the word with a sigh, her eyes closed and her head thrown back.

His brother’s name on his lover’s lips brought everything inside Cody grinding to a halt. His heart rate slowed. His brain ceased working, too. Nothing made sense.

“What did you just say?” His mouth formed the words even as a chill rushed over his skin. He shifted his hold on her, barely able to think.

She peered up at him through eyelids at half-mast.

Whatever she saw in his expression must have given her pause, because she tipped her head sideways and worried her lower lip with her teeth.

“Carson,” she repeated, loud and clear, even though she looked abashed. “I’m sorry. I knew who you were when I walked into the bar. I was looking for you.”

“Not me, sweetheart.” With an effort, he straightened his shoulders. “I’m Cody McNeill. You’ve got the wrong twin.”

.

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