HE WAS A MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN. Blond or brunette, freckled or dimpled, witty or shy, Faron Whitelaw made it his business to discover the facet of each woman that made her uniquely beautiful. Needless to say, women found Faron irresistible. Even if he hadn’t been handsome, which he was, they would have loved him for the innate thoughtfulness that always made him give as much as he took. Any woman who passed through Faron Whitelaw’s life–whether in bed or out–received a gift that would remain with her a lifetime: the knowledge that she was a very special, desirable human being.
In fact, Faron had never known a woman he didn’t like. Until now. At the age of thirty he had finally encountered the exception to the rule. He not only didn’t like Belinda Prescott, he was prepared to hate her with a passion. Because, despite the fact he had never laid eyes on her, the woman was personally responsible for turning his life upside down.
“Want some company?”
Faron looked up at his eldest brother from the chair where he sat slouched with a whiskey in his hand. “Not particularly.”
Garth snorted. “Too damn bad.” He poured himself two fingers of whiskey and took the chair opposite Faron’s in front of the stone fireplace. He put his feet up on a sturdy rawhide-covered stool that had held generations of Whitelaw boots. “I can’t believe you’re making so much out of this.”
Faron’s gray-green eyes narrowed. His lips twisted into a bitter smile. “You’re not the one who just found out he’s a bastard.”
Garth laughed. “Hell. I’ve been called a bastard all my life.”
“That’s how you act. It’s what I am.”
Faron’s voice was stark as heasked, “How could Mom have done such a thing? Having an affair with some rich sonofabitch…. Did Dad know?”
Garth’s lips flattened. “He knew.” He paused and added, “So did I.”
Faron stared into his brother’s dark eyes, stunned by the realization that Garth had lived for years with this awful knowledge. “How long have you known that I was only half your kin?”
Garth looked away into the fire before he answered. “Since you were born.”
“And you treated me like a real brother?”
“You are my brother!” Garth snapped. “Nothing’s going to change that. Dad’s name is on your birth certificate. He raised you. Nothing else matters.”
Faron sneered. “You haven’t read any of those letters from the widow–my stepmother–asking when I’m coming to claim my inheritance from my father.”
“Forget it,” Garth advised. “There’s plenty of Hawk’s Way for both of us. You can stay right here in Texas, and we’ll keep on raising and training quarter horses, just like we always have.”
Faron shook his head. “I’ve got a mind to meet Belinda Prescott. The lawyer said she was the one who talked my fa–Wayne Prescott into putting me in his will. Said she insisted I get half of everything. Otherwise, I might never have known what Mom…” Faron’s voice trailed off as his throat tightened up on him.
He had been feeling too much since he had found out that his beautiful mother had indulged in a tawdry affair with a millionaire rancher visiting Texas from Wyoming and had borne a bastard son. It was a stunning revelation to Faron that he was only related on his mother’s side to his older brothers Garth and Jesse and to his younger sister Tate. He felt bereft, wrenched from the bosom of his family. An outsider. And it was all that Prescott bitch’s fault.
“I never figured the money would mean so much to you,” Garth said in a quiet voice.
Faron’s gray-green eyes turned cold. “It’s a good thing I grew up knowing how distrustful you are of every-body’s motives. Otherwise I’d have to stand you up and knock you down for saying that. I’d have given anything not to know the truth. I don’t want half that old man’s fortune. I just want things to be the way they were.”
The way they never would be again.
Garth swallowed half his glass of whiskey. But he didn’t apologize. Faron hadn’t expected him to. He began to understand a little better what had made Garth so cynical about women, why his older brother refused to trust the species, let alone love one of them. Faron might have felt the same way himself, if he had grown up knowing his mother had betrayed his father.
Both his parents were dead now. His mother had died giving birth to his sister, Tate, when Faron was seven. His father had broken his neck coming off an ornery bronc when Faron was fifteen. He felt ill equipped to deal with this secret that had been kept from him for so many years.
Faron tried to remember if his father–or mother–had treated him any differently than Garth or Jesse or Tate. But it was too painful to even think about that right now. He was still too shocked. And angry. And frustrated. He felt battered and needed to escape.
Faron played with the frayed seam at the knee of his jeans. “I just want to see the place where my fa–Where he came from,” Faron said. “I can’t explain it except to say that I feel like there’s a hole inside me now that needs filling. Maybe I’ll find something in Wyoming that’ll give me the answers I need.”
“Give my regards to Belinda Prescott,” Garth said with a caustic smile.
“Your greetings will have to wait,” Faron said grimly.
“I’ve got a few things to say to Mrs. Prescott myself.”
BELINDA PRESCOTT FELT GUILTY AS SIN. She should be in
mourning. Her husband of eight years had been buried a mere four months ago. She should be home wearing black and recounting the memories of her too-brief marriage. Instead she was riding the fastest horse in the stables across Wayne’s Wyoming ranch, King’s Castle, enjoying the early spring sunshine and feeling finally, at long last, free. Because for six of the past eight years, The Castle had been a prison and Wayne her jailer.
It hadn’t started out that way, of course. She had met Wayne when she was a waitress in a short-order diner in Casper that he frequented. She had worked the graveyard shift trying to make ends meet, and he had often come in for a midnight breakfast. They had started talking, and one thing had led to another.
Wayne had found out that she was supporting three sisters. He was more than willing to accept a beautiful and youthful bride in exchange for a substantial trust fund for each of her siblings. She and Wayne had each known exactly what they were getting into. Twenty-year-old Belinda had willingly said her wedding vows with a man old enough to be her father. It was a small enough sacrifice to make so her sisters could have better lives.
She had been too young and desperate at the time to realize the ramifications of selling herself–body and soul–for money. In the years since, she had regretted her devil’s bargain, but never so much as now, when she was finally free of Wayne and ready to go on with her life. Belinda had given up something besides her youth to marry Wayne–she had lost her innocence. She was no longer credulous, gullible or naive. She would never trust another man. The lessons Wayne had taught were hard, and he had been brutally thorough.
She spurred the mare beneath her into a lope and lifted her face to the sun. She didn’t want to remember. But she couldn’t forget.
Wayne had been such a gentle husband. At first. Then his heart had started causing him trouble. He had needed to take medication to keep him alive, and the medication had made him impotent. He had felt less a man and had sought other ways to relieve his frustration. He had begun to gamble. Then he drank to forget his huge gambling losses.
Slowly but surely he had become less gentle and more unreasonable in his demands. His fortune had dwindled until all that was left was The Castle, the land and a few prime head of breeding stock. And a twenty-eight-year-old wife who had learned that sometimes the price of security comes too high.
Belinda pulled the mare to an abrupt stop and wiped tears from eyes that were too blurred to see the grassy prairie around her. Her chest felt leaden–not because of sorrow, but because she felt none. God help her, she had felt only relief when the heart attack killed Wayne. It was difficult for her to look Wayne’s mother, Madelyn, in the eye. Because Madelyn truly grieved, and Belinda could not.
At least she had been able to do one good thing. She had convinced Wayne to leave half of everything to his son. If it hadn’t been for Wayne’s mother, Belinda would have urged Wayne to leave his entire ranching empire to Faron Whitelaw. But Belinda had no money of her own. She hadn’t had any trust fund put in her own name when she had married Wayne. He had gambled nearly everything else away. She had to have some way to take care of Madelyn, who had become as precious to her as her own mother.
Over the years, as Wayne had become more cruel, Madelyn had often stepped in to act as a buffer between her son and his wife. Madelyn had been appalled when she caught Wayne slapping Belinda. She had threatened to call the police if her son ever threatened Belinda with violence again. The two women had never spoken about Wayne, but they had shared other confidences, other hopes and dreams. Which was why Belinda had been determined to light a fire under her stepson that would goad him into moving north as soon as possible.
Belinda wondered what Faron Whitelaw would do when he learned the other conditions of Wayne’s will.
Her brow furrowed in concern. She had to hope that he would want his half of King’s Castle enough to do what had to be done. She was counting on it. She was willing to do her part. She only hoped he would be willing to hang around long enough after he showed up to do his.
Otherwise they were both going to lose everything.