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The Forbidden Brother

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“You’re Cody?” The color drained from the woman’s face, as if that was extraordinarily unpleasant news.

Not that he was surprised. Cody did just fine with women when he chose to, but Carson had always been the ladies’ man. Clearly, Carson was the guy she’d been hoping for. So yeah...he wasn’t surprised, but definitely a bit disappointed given the incredible encounter they’d just shared. After his last go-round with a faithless female, Cody wasn’t in the market for a woman who had her eyes on another man.

“In the flesh.” He disentangled himself with an effort, setting her on her feet.

Only to realize, as he tidied up, that the condom she’d given him was now in shreds. The realization—coming hard on the heels of her mistaking him from Carson—sent him stalking to the other side of the work space and slumping down in a chair.

“Oh, no.” The woman held her head in her hands. And she didn’t even know the worst of it yet.

“Maybe you’d better have a seat.” He used his boot to shove a second chair out from under the long, makeshift conference table that was a holdover from the retail store that had occupied the building long ago. “And tell me your name, for starters.”

He’d had unprotected sex with a total stranger.

And while, yes, he’d started out wanting an adventure, he hadn’t expected things to go so far. Especially not with a woman who had mistaken him for his twin.

“I’m Jillian.” She lifted her chin and picked up her bag before joining him at the table. She dropped into the utilitarian chair he’d offered her, her red curls drooping as much as her shoulders. “Jillian Ross.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

“Well, Jillian Ross, we’ve got bigger problems on our hands than you mistaking me for my younger twin brother.”

“A twin.” She repeated the word, shaking her head like she’d never heard of such a thing.

Cody steeled himself against the surprise kick to his ego and shared his more pressing concern.

“Correct.” He heard his clipped tone and couldn’t help it. “But right now, I’d like to direct your attention to the fact that the condom broke.”

Her head snapped up, green eyes flashing even in the dim light.

“Excuse me?”

“Equipment malfunction,” he explained, trying to keep frustration out of his voice. “Maybe the condom was past the expiration date?”

“No.” She shook her head and then straightened her spine, seeming to recover herself a little bit. “I’m sure that’s not the case, but it doesn’t matter, since I’m disease-free, like I told you.” She pulled in a quick breath and tipped her chin up. “And as for the other concern, there’s a high percent chance that I’m...” She closed her eyes for a moment, as if gathering strength. Or patience. When she opened them again, there was a glitter in her gaze. A hint of emotion he couldn’t fathom. “I’m most likely infertile.”

He hadn’t expected that. He ran a hand through his hair, his brain buzzing with unanswered questions. Questions he wasn’t sure he should ask.

Then again, they’d taken a big risk tonight. He needed to know.

“How high a percentage?” He leaned on the conference table, only just now realizing he wore no shirt. He’d been so distracted he forgot to retrieve the only clothing they’d discarded before having sex. He spotted his T-shirt in a heap on the floor. “And how can you be sure?”

“I’m not comfortable divulging all my unhappy health history.” Her words were clipped, possibly angry. “But I’m sure.”

“I’m sorry for that. But you have to admit there’s a lot at stake here.”

“No.” She shook her head. “There probably isn’t.”

Her shoulders were ramrod straight. It was a defensive posture. He told himself not to pursue the subject now. Not to push when emotions were already running high.

But then some of the tension seemed to seep back out of her. A sigh slipped from her lips.

“I’ve had extensive chemo and radiation, okay?” She held herself differently when she said it, arms crossed protectively over her midsection. “My doctors warned me before we started that it was unlikely I’d be able to carry my own children. And not that it’s any of your business, but I went so far as to freeze my eggs.” Her jaw flexed. “So don’t worry about it.”

A stab of empathy had him reaching across the table. Touching her forearm. He hadn’t meant to unearth something so personal—so huge.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.” She swallowed with visible effort. “I’m fine now.” Blinking fast, she shrugged and pulled away from his touch. “I’m alive.”

The quiet fierceness in her voice told him that fight had been hard-won. He wanted to know more about her—what she’d battled, how long she’d been in remission—but he didn’t want to pry on a night when they’d already gotten under one another’s skin in surprising ways.

“Very much so,” he agreed, humbled by the small glimpse of herself she’d given him. “I didn’t mean to encroach on something so private.”

A wry smile quirked her lips. “You have a right to know, given the circumstances.”

“Thank you.” He appreciated her honesty and hoped it would continue now that he had another sticky question to ask. “So tell me, Jillian Ross, what exactly did you want with my twin when you followed me in here tonight?”

* * *

For the sake of great sex, she’d set fire to her career.

How could she have missed the fact that Cody and Carson McNeill were twins when she’d been researching their ranches? Jillian couldn’t believe her bad luck as she stared across the table at the incredibly handsome shirtless rancher. Who’d be very angry with her when she revealed what she’d been trying to accomplish. She shouldn’t have been plotting to gain access to one brother through the other, and she surely should have come clean before she committed to the sensual adventure.

Then again, why had Cody refused her request to film on location without any explanation or opportunity to plead her case?

“I thought Carson might lead me to you,” she told him honestly. If she was going to lose the opportunity to film on the McNeill ranch altogether—and lose her job in the process—she would go out fighting.

“You wanted to find me?” He lifted a dark eyebrow, his brooding, skeptical expression not intimidating her so much now that he was shirtless.

She still couldn’t believe she’d had sex with him. He held her professional future in his hands.

“Yes.” Lifting her satchel, she laid it on the table and drew out the county land map. “I’ve been trying to contact you about this piece of property.”

She pointed to the location where she’d taken photographs a few weeks ago.

“Black Creek Ranch.” He spun the map to face him, smoothing the edges where it curled. “What do you want with—” He glanced up at her, recognition dawning on his face. “You’re the location scout.”

The tone of his voice made it sound like her job was in the same category as a tax collector’s. His eyes lingered on her.

“One and the same.” She smiled tightly. “I sent a letter to your business manager—”

“More than one,” he reminded her, shoving himself to his feet. He prowled along the perimeter of the room until he reached his discarded shirts, and punched his fists through the armholes. “You asked repeatedly. But I don’t want any film crews on my property.”

“So you said in your two-line refusal.” She knew she should be nice. Professional. But she’d burned that bridge when she entered the door marked Private.

“You didn’t leave me any opportunity to explain how quickly we could finish the shoot, or the options we have for sending as few people as possible onto your land—”

“Because I’m not interested in having anyone on my land. That’s the whole point of private property, isn’t it? It’s private. I don’t have to let strangers trample all over it.”

“But we’re hardly strangers now, are we?” She hadn’t been able to resist saying it. Her body was still tingling from incredible feelings—feelings she probably wouldn’t get to experience again with him. She also thought about her list and all the adventures she wouldn’t be able to accomplish if she lost her job. Real fear for her future rattled her. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to have this conversation with you tonight. I—”

“You hoped to sweet-talk my brother into convincing me on your behalf?” Cody McNeill had put all his clothes back on, and the forbidding expression on his face made it difficult to believe he’d teased the best orgasm of her life from her just moments ago.

She remained in her seat at the conference table, unwilling to get too close to him when her fingers still ached to touch him. “I looked up who owned the property neighboring yours, since you’re an extremely difficult man to reach.”

“My work keeps me busy.”

“Since Carson McNeill was easy enough to find online—”

“No surprise there,” he muttered, reaching for his Stetson and planting it on his head.

“—I thought fate must be smiling on me when he walked past the Thirsty Cow tonight.” She could really use the rest of that wine she’d left behind. Her head throbbed with a mixture of embarrassment and frustration that Cody didn’t seem willing to give an inch.

She drummed her fingers on the tabletop, a blond wood that looked out of place in this very Western-style remodeled space.

“Except it wasn’t Carson.” His smile was a poor facsimile of the one he’d given her earlier.

Because, she realized, that hadn’t been his real smile.

An idea took hold. A dawning comprehension.

“You were pretending to be him, weren’t you?” She realized that initial exchange—when she’d first arrived in Wrangler’s—was the only time she’d seen a genuine smile from him.

Except it hadn’t been genuine at all. He had been imitating his brother. She could tell she had guessed correctly when a fleeting defensive expression crossed his face.

Indignation rose in her as she got to her feet and grabbed the map and her bag. She wouldn’t be a fool for any man again after the way her ex-boyfriend had walked out on her after surgery. She was smarter than that.

“You know, I can take some of the blame for not telling you who I was tonight.” She charged toward the door, ready to put this night—this obstinate man—behind her. “But it seems like you also played a role in this...misunderstanding.”

“Misunderstanding?” He stood between her and the door. He didn’t seem to be blocking it on purpose, he just hadn’t stepped aside yet. “Is that what you’re calling it? You came into town looking for a way to circumvent me.”

She gestured at his imposing form with a flourish. “Sort of like I am right now, since you’re still standing in my way. Apparently you take pride in being immovable.”

His jaw worked silently; maybe he was chewing over the idea.

“That’s not true,” he said finally. “But I don’t want you to storm out of here until I know you have a safe way home. And I’d also like to know where I can reach you tomorrow.”

“Seriously?” She shook her head. “I’m perfectly capable of finding my own way back to the hotel. And I can’t see why you’d need to reach me when you’ve made it clear you don’t want a single soul on your private land.”

He caught her off guard by reaching toward her and smoothing aside a curl that fell over her eyes. His touch, unexpectedly tender, reminded her of all the heat he’d roused in her before. What they’d shared had taken her breath away.

Even if he was being difficult and unreasonable now.

“First of all, I kept you out late and I want to at least walk you to your car, because that’s what a gentleman does.” His voice stirred memories of everything they’d shared, from a dance to so much more. “Second, I want to speak to you once the dust settles from tonight, because I owe you an explanation.”

He had a point. She was dealing with too much sensory overload to wade through it all now.

“And third,” he continued, opening the door that led back out to the bar, “we need to stay in touch because no matter what the doctors say about your fertility there could still be repercussions.” He spoke in a low voice, his hand splayed across her back as they made their way across the dance floor toward the exit. “And I can assure you, if there are, I won’t be a difficult man to reach.”


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