Jarrod O’Neill pulled his rental car up to the back door of the hunting lodge where his sister Jamey and her husband Brodie Sinclaire lived and worked. He cut the engine and stepped out of the car into the crisp November air. The breeze that danced across the back of his neck held the promise of winter, yet the morning sun fought back with a kiss of warmth on his cheeks. A man could think out here, with nothing but the sounds of bird calls and wind rustling through the trees. No cars honking, no loud music, or voices shouting, just peace and quiet. They’d all thought Jamey was six kinds of crazy when she announced she was moving to Prairie, Kansas to run a hunting lodge, crazier still, when she fell in love with a rancher.
But he’d been the first of his brothers to jump on board with their relationship as soon as he’d seen the happiness radiating from her eyes. He and Jamey had always been close, and to see his baby sister so happy… well, it melted something in his cold, hard soul.
The back door clattered open, and he turned at the sound of Jamey’s laugh. “You gonna stand starin’ at the birds all day, or are you gonna come in and meet your niece?”
Jarrod caught her up in an embrace, spinning her once before setting her down. “Motherhood looks good on you,” he said, planting a kiss on her cheek.
Jamey beamed up at him. “I never knew I could be so happy. You should try it sometime.” She cuffed him on the shoulder.
“I’m perfectly happy with my life.” His life was f*****g great. He’d made partner last year, the youngest in the history of the firm. He worked on some of the highest profile cases in the country, and he was named one of D.C.’s fifty most eligible bachelors. What wasn’t to love?
She made a choking noise. “You’re so full of crap. You work all. The. Damned. Time.”
Truth. But he played, too. “Hey, I play rugby.” Maybe not as much as he liked, but he made sure to run the Mall every day when the weather was good. And he took the occasional marathon s*x weekend.
“You haven’t been to visit since our wedding,” she accused with another noise of disbelief.
“I’ve been busy.”
“So busy, you haven’t even been able to get home to see Mom and Pop?”
He wrapped an arm around her waist and gave her a smile. “I promised Ma I’d be home for Thanksgiving. And I’m here for Fiona’s baptism, aren’t I?”
“Only because I threatened to m**m you if you didn’t,” she answered with a rueful laugh. “I miss you, Jare. And I, we want you to be a part of Fi’s life, not just some person who’s a picture, or a voice on the phone.”
“I promise I’ll do better. Once this trial is over, I’ll take some time off, come out and spend a few weeks.”
“A month?” she wheedled with a winsome smile. “Pretty please? We have internet. You could work remotely.”
Jarrod gave her a squeeze. “We’ll see. Now take me inside so I can meet my little niece.”
The scene, when Jamey led him through the kitchen and into the great room, stopped him short. In front of the large stone hearth, stood his brother-in-law, Brodie — a strapping cowboy — wearing a sling and singing an off-key lullaby about cows and farm animals. Jarrod opened his mouth to speak, but Jamey pinched him. “Don’t you dare,” she hissed. “If you say anything, I will tell Brodie about the time you wet yourself when we were kids because you stepped on a snake.”
His mouth twitched. He hated snakes with a holy passion that rivaled St. Patrick. And the snake incident was one best kept deep in the memory books, away from the light of day.
Jamey left him at the entryway and moved to join Brodie, wrapping her arm around his backside and going up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. Something about the picture they made twisted deep inside Jarrod. A longing he’d pushed away out of habit since forever, but the tableau in front of him was not for him, charming though it might be. A knot pressed against his sternum, like he’d swallowed an ice-cube, or a chunk of meat that was too big. With effort, he cleared his throat. “All right, you lovebirds, how much longer are you going to keep me waiting?”
Brodie turned and flashed him an enormous grin. f**k, he looked elated. The stress lines he’d come to associate with Brodie had vanished, replaced by lines of happy exhaustion. “Good to see you. Come see her, she’s perfect.” Brodie lifted the tiny little thing out of the sling and cradled her in his arm, placing a tender kiss on the mop of silky black hair that stuck out in all directions.
Jarrod crossed to join them, and awkwardly accepted the baby, allowing Brodie to place her in the crook of his arm. His heart stuttered, pounding erratically. “She’s so… tiny,” he murmured, barely able to breathe. Seriously. She probably weighed less than his rugby ball.
Jamey snorted. “She weighed nine pounds when she was born.”
“But I know what you mean,” Brodie chimed in. “I was afraid I’d drop her when the midwife put her in my arms. I’ve never held something so small that was alive.”
Jarrod flashed him a grateful smile. “Right? She’s lovely. She’s the perfect blend of you and Jamey. She’s got my sister’s mouth.”
“Just what I need,” Brodie said with a smirk and a sideways glance at his wife. “Two mouthy women in my life.”
Jamey’s eyes lit. “You need all the mouthy women to keep you in line, Mr. Cowboy.”
“Barefoot and pregnant,” he replied with a broad grin. “That’s how I like you.” He backed away toward the hall, with a laugh. “Gotta go change.”
“It’s a good thing I know you’re teasing or you’d be sleepin’ in the barn tonight,” she called after him. She turned to Jarrod. “You okay sitting with Fi while we go get changed?”
“Sure.” Jarrod fought a wave of disappointment. He had to leave after the service tomorrow, and he’d hoped to spend the day catching up with Jamey and Brodie. “Where are you off to?”
“Dottie’s youngest is getting married. We’re heading over to Falcon Ridge early to help with food and set-up. But we’ll be back this evening, and then you and I can have a dark beer and the craic.”
He’d be more than ready for a long catch-up, but something niggled at him. “Wait. Dottie Grace?” Holy s**t, was that Alexis’ family? There were probably dozens of Graces in Kansas. It couldn’t be. He’d teased her mercilessly early on about being from Kansas, but he’d never bothered to ask where she was actually from. And he’d forgotten until just now, that the town matriarch’s last name was Grace.
Jamey gave him an exasperated look. “Yes. The diner lady? My partner in the food truck? Is that a problem?”
“Not at all. Just… Does she have a daughter named Alexis?” His voice sounded strained to his ears.
Jamey’s eyes turned speculative, and her mouth pursed. “Dottie has four heart-stoppingly beautiful daughters…” Her voice trailed off.
Fuck. That was a vague description, but it fit the bill for Alexis Grace — Kansas. She was drop-dead gorgeous, and she carried herself like a goddamned queen. He raised a hand. “Don’t go getting any ideas.” Kansas — his special nickname for her since he’d first crossed paths with her years ago at a corporate mixer — also had a tongue like a razor, and working with her in any capacity drove him to the brink of insanity. It always had. She was a ball-buster in and out of the courtroom and there was no way he was mixing it up with Alexis Grace, no matter how many times his pulse raced when she glared at him from across the courtroom. “Why don’t I babysit? You and Brodie can have a day off.”
Jamey’s laugh filled the room. “You know f**k-all about babies, don’t you? Fi’s barely six weeks old. I have to nurse her around the clock. My boobs will explode if she doesn’t come with us.”
Jarrod winced. “TMI, sis. TMI.”
“Get used to it. Someday this is going to be you.”
“Uh-huh. No way. I’m happy to stay eccentric Uncle Jarrod.”
The calculating look returned to Jamey’s eyes. “Why don’t you come with us? No one’s going to mind. You know how Prairie weddings are. Everyone will be there.”
He did. Even Jamey and Brodie’s changed at the last minute, turning into a double wedding with Brodie’s brother, Ben and his wife, Hope. A rejection sat on the tip of his tongue, but then an idea popped into his head. A deliciously awful idea. If this really was Alexis’ family, how fun would it be to catch her off-guard and keep her off her game? It would be worth the headache he’d inevitably develop from her sharp wit, just to push her buttons and see her tap-dance. And more fun than casting about the hunting lodge by himself, with nothing but his laptop for company. “Okay. I’ll come. I have a suit in my car.”
“Pfft. No one wears suits. But if you insist, I’m sure it will help you with the ladies.”
“I don’t need help with the ladies, sis. I’m here only for Fiona.”
“We’ll see about that,” she said with a smirk over her shoulder as she sashayed down the hall, leaving him to stare in wonder at the tiny bundle of perfection sleeping in his arms.