And you thought pearls were only to wear around your neck.
They have loved each other since childhood--a secret
they've kept from each other until each is trapped into marriage to others. But Kelly is
determined to make Samantha his--body and soul. Now he must contend with the constant threat of
those who have joined forces to destroy the woman he loves...and her family.
Was it possible to die of a broken heart? If so, Samantha Kent was doomed. In all her eighteen years, she’d never known a pain like this. The shock alone was enough to kill a person. She couldn’t even cry. She just stared into space praying this was a horrible nightmare and she’d wake up soon. Kelly MacLaughlin was marrying someone else.
At least Samantha could pride herself on the fact that she outwardly accepted the news when their mothers exchanged the information. How she did so was a mystery. Afterward, she slipped away to her room while they chatted about the upcoming wedding. She expected tears to consume her. Numbness surrounded her instead. She sat on the edge of her bed, clutching a worn teddy bear as old as she.
As far back as she could remember, she’d loved Kelly. To the outside world, he was like the perfect big brother. In her heart, Samantha adored him and never doubted for a second he loved her, too. It seemed like everything fun she learned in life was from him. Whether it was to teach her how to swim or ride a bike or rescue her from the tree she’d been climbing, Kelly was always there. In the fairy tales her mother read to her at night, he became her prince—her knight in shining armor—and her young heart planned their future.
Some might have called it a crush. There was a time she thought so, too. But her heart, her body, her soul knew what she wanted—him.
As a child, it was easy to share her love, but as she grew older, she kept the depth of her feelings to herself. He was three years older than she was. Maybe he didn’t feel the same way. That was something her heart couldn’t bear to learn. But she’d catch up to him one day and she’d have her "happily ever after." It was natural, wasn’t it?
The Kents and MacLaughlins had been close friends long before Samantha’s birth…long before the birth of her and Kelly’s fathers. A solid relationship, both business and professional, was forged from the Depression years. Samantha’s father, Alexander Kent, and Kelly’s father, Owen MacLaughlin, were born within days of each other and became best friends, then surrogate brothers when Owen lost his family. Their mothers were distant cousins.
All things considered, didn’t it make sense that she and Kelly were destined for each other? The families were so close they called each others’ parents aunt and uncle. The foundation was there.
Now this. All her carefully laid plans shattered. Even her graduation ceremony was ruined. And here she’d thought it would be the beginning of her life with Kelly. Instead, it was the end of all her hopes.
She pulled herself from the bed and wandered to the window. The MacLaughlin house lay a half-mile away—a beautiful two-story brick home. Not as large as the Kent estate, but then not as old either.
The stables lay between them, tucked back a bit. As did the old groundskeeper’s house. Behind them, pasture led to a small, private lake. And around acres and acres of vineyards, almond and English walnut orchards skirted them. Those vines produced some of the best grapes in the Central Valley, and the best wines in California. It came at a cost, though—a lot of hard work.
Samantha supposed she’d romanticized the whole family tale. Goodness knows she’d built a future for herself and Kelly because of it. Odd, how she never paired herself up with Kelly’s brother, Eric.
Samantha smiled. Impossible. They were just like brother and sister, non-biological twins, best friends. But Kelly…
How can he do this when I love him?
She abruptly turned away from the window as a thought occurred to her. Of course! He didn’t know. She hadn’t told him in ages. She’d tell him now. He’d be overjoyed, of course, and stop this marriage nonsense. Then he’d swing her into his arms, cover her mouth with his, slowly strip away her clothing and love her as it was meant to be.
Long strides carried her to the adjoining bathroom. A touch of makeup added sparkle and maturity. He couldn’t refuse her. He wouldn’t. They were meant to be.
* * *
Kelly MacLaughlin sat in the den of his family’s home and stared at the computer ledgers before him. The words and figures were an incomprehensible blur as his mind poured over his troubles.
So much for long-range planning.
He shoved away from the desk, then paced the length of the room and back before he sank onto the soft blue floral Early American-style couch.
He’d always prided himself on being a responsible person. After all, hadn’t that been the way he was raised? He had his life planned out at an early age and worked toward those goals. But that plan certainly didn’t include an unexpected pregnancy and marriage to Loretta Peters.
When Loretta had dropped her bombshell, Kelly could have easily strangled her. He had trusted her when she said she’d handle the birth control. Instead, she had manipulated him, knowing he’d do the responsible thing. It was the only way he would marry her, and both of them knew it.
To say Kelly was livid was an understatement and he didn’t hesitate to let her know exactly how he felt. With one year of college left, he now had to quit school and support a wife and child. His parents would call it pride. Kelly didn’t care. He refused to mooch off his family or the Kents. Yes, he’d always planned to work at the winery with his father and Alex Kent, but damn it, he’d wanted to earn his degree first. And to know he’d done so on his merits with no financial backing whatsoever. To prove to himself, his father, and Alex he was worthy of the responsibility they gave him.
To show the one person who meant the most to him the type of man he was…when the time came.
His mind drifted to the other plan now ruined. Kelly buried his face in his hands. Twenty-one years old and all he wanted to do was cry. Some man he turned out to be.
He’d loved Samantha Kent from the second her sapphire eyes looked up at him. Her gaze, followed by a gurgle and a smile, and he was hers for life. He quickly dubbed her "Sam" and assigned himself as her guardian protector.
Kelly remembered the day his love took a lustful turn. He’d just discovered the pleasures a woman’s body could give and happened upon Samantha as she rested beside the lake after a nude swim. At fourteen, her body had developed nicely with a perfect hourglass—rounded hips, small waist, and breasts meant for a man’s hands. His hands. She showed the promise of the woman to come.
Shameful as it sounded, he hid behind the boat shed while he watched her. He was even more ashamed to admit, it wasn’t the last time. But, damn it, he wanted her. He still did; he always would. Just thinking about her…
Kelly readjusted himself to a more comfortable position and plopped back against the cushions.
He’d counted off the years until Sam’s eighteenth birthday, hoping, praying she felt the same. There was just one last hurdle—her high school graduation. He had everything planned so carefully. They’d go out to dinner the next night. Their first date. They’d marry, have children. Everything planned for years. Now this…this retched business with Loretta.
He stared at the cold stone fireplace. In the long run, he supposed it was for the best. His romantic fantasies about Samantha were just that—fantasy. In one respect, he felt a sense of depravity that he should love and want her. They’d grown up together, raised like family. Didn’t that make his feelings sick? How could he possibly hope she’d ever think of him as more than a big brother? The whole plan now seemed ridiculous. Still, his heart broke as he tried to convince himself of this.
It’s no use. He had to marry Loretta. He wouldn’t have his child born out of wedlock. He’d been irresponsible and now must suffer the consequences of his actions. Time to let his crazy idea of life with Sam go.
He heard a tap on the door and glanced up to see her standing there. Heat scorched his body, licking flame around parts of him better left alone.
Sam was beautiful in a beige peasant blouse and a black floral skirt. The swell of her bosom peeked above the scoop neck. Braless, her nipples poked against the material as if begging for attention from his hands and lips. A toss of her long red-gold hair jiggled them more. She was tall, slender, lovely—made to fit his body. She was on the threshold of becoming a woman, and at that moment, it was all he could do to keep from taking her into his arms and making her one. His body stiffened again at the thought.
Samantha stared at him for what seemed an eternity while she struggled to find her voice. Her handsome prince—tall, broad-shouldered, with dark-blond hair and a ready smile that made his golden eyes sparkle. He was for her. They were meant to be. So why was she suddenly so timid?
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she summoned the nerve to speak. "Kel, I need to talk to you." Her voice quivered with every word. "Are you busy? It’s very important."
"I always have time for you, no matter how busy I am," he said with a smile. "Come on in."
She stepped through and locked the door behind her. Hands clasped before her, she knelt beside him on the couch.
"Your mom’s at my house." She studied the sprawling vineyards through the bay window behind them, anything to avoid his gaze. "Is it true? Are you going to marry Loretta?"
"Yeah, it’s true," he quietly replied.
Pain strangled her heart as she fought against tears. It was no use. Pulling in a deep breath, she looked at him through a veil of tears. "Don’t, Kel. Please don’t."
"I have to, Sam." He brushed his thumb across her cheek, catching the single tear that fell.
"But you can’t. You just can’t. I love you."
"I love you, too. I always have."
"No, no, no. You don’t understand. I don’t love you like a brother. I love you like a woman loves a man."
Kelly couldn’t believe his ears. Part of him wanted to sing. Another part cursed the irony. Despite everything, all he wanted to do was take her in his arms and make her his. Common sense had to prevail. Sam would be hurt, but he had to do what was best for them all. This was going to kill him, too.
"I’m flattered you feel that way, and I understand it’s common for girls your age to have crushes…"
Her gaze locked on to his. Blue eyes shot sparks. "It’s not a crush."
Without warning, she brought her lips to his. The feathery touch of her tongue against his was more than Kelly’s resolve could take. With no thought to the consequences, he wrapped his arms around her slender waist and pulled her close while he eagerly twined his tongue with hers. Their kiss was long and thorough, stripping away all rational thought and leaving him starved for more.
He tugged her closer. Her nipples stabbed him in the chest, leaving pricks of heat in their wake as she straddled his lap.
A low groan tore from his throat. Samantha responded with one of her own, then hiked up her skirt. Moist heat enveloped him. She raked herself along his length, destroying all reason.
With a grunt, he laid her on the couch. Her legs wrapped around his waist. His body begged for freedom. With a yank, he shoved down her blouse. Her breasts popped free—two perfect rounds of creamy flesh. He nipped his way down her throat, tweaking first one peach-colored nipple, then the other between his thumbs and forefingers.
Samantha twitched beneath him. If she didn’t stop soon, he’d lose it right there. She looked like she was pretty close to doing the same thing. Her fingers fumbled with his belt buckle. If she strayed any lower…
Kelly drew one rock-hard nipple deep into his mouth, sucking hard. Samantha tossed back her head and moaned. His hands replaced hers at his crotch. One flick and his belt was history. Another and his zipper was down. He grabbed himself in one hand, shoved aside the crotch of her panties, and aimed.
"Yes, oh, yes!" She clutched his head to her chest. "You do love me!"
It was like a blast of ice water in his face. Gritting his teeth, Kelly jerked away, pulling her blouse back into place as he stood.
"What’s wrong? I don’t understand." She braced herself on her elbows, legs still wide open. Her cheeks were flushed, and her chest heaved.
He shoved himself into his trousers and stomped toward the window. There he stood, twisting the drapes as he stared out the window.
"It’s not right, Sam. It’s just not right."
Would his body ever get back to normal again? He pulsed against the confines of his twill trousers, aching for the release that awaited him a mere step away.
Good God, she’s only eighteen! And it didn’t matter. All he could focus on was love found and now lost.
"You love me. I can tell. Tell me. Tell me the truth. Do you love me?"
There was no sense in lying to her. With a heavy sigh, he turned. "God knows I do, Sam. I’ve loved you for years. I’d planned…" What good will it do to tell her now? "I never in a million years guessed you’d feel this way."
Her face lit up like a night sky on the Fourth of July. She jumped to her feet.
Kelly waved her away before she came closer. "Don’t. Things have changed. I blame myself entirely. It doesn’t matter how much I love you. I have to marry Loretta."
"I don’t understand." Her bottom lip quivered.
He knew he’d break her heart with his next words. Hell, he’d broken his own. "She’s pregnant."
A chill settled in her eyes. A lift of her chin followed. "I thought you were more careful than that."
"I thought so, too. Loretta assured me she was taking adequate precautions. She lied."
"Why marry her if you don’t love her?"
"Because of the baby. I can’t in good conscience not marry her."
Despite that stubborn lift in her chin, tears pooled once more.
"It’s my responsibility and this is how I have to deal with it," he added.
"But I love you so much."
Why didn’t she yell, scream, hit him? It would’ve been preferable to her quiet anguish. "And I love you, but this is how things have to be. It’s probably best for you anyway. You’re young and beautiful, and you’ll love again."
He would hate when that happened. The thought of another man loving her ate him up.
Tears flowed unrestrained down her cheeks. "How can you do this?"
Kelly tightened his grip on the drapes. "I won’t desert a child I helped bring into this world."
"Don’t do this. Please don’t…" She buried her face in her hands as a sob tore from her throat.
That was his downfall. One stride took him to her and he enfolded her in his embrace. "Hush, Sam, please don’t cry." He brushed a kiss against her temple.
Samantha nuzzled her face against his, her lips seeking his, and when they found them, Kelly branded them with a fiery kiss. He jerked away from her and walked from the room, nearly colliding with his father in the process.
* * *
Samantha darted for the door, then jerked to a halt when she saw Owen MacLaughlin. A frown drew his gray-blond eyebrows together. She must be a sight, she knew. And any second she also knew he’d be demanding to know why she was crying. Coherent words were impossible; an explanation even more so.
She tried to edge by.
He caught her arm and pulled her to stop. "Sammie, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?"
If she hadn’t been crying before, she sure would now. He had that effect on her. His voice soft and soothing. Things she’d never confess to her father, she’d give up in an instant to him. But this time had to be the exception.
"Nothing, Uncle Owen. Kelly and I just had a fight." With shaking fingers, she flicked away her tears.
The look in his eyes called her a liar. Samantha held a breath while he searched her face for the truth.
"You and Kelly fight?"
"Uncle Owen, please let me go. I have to find Eric."
Reluctantly, he did so. "He’s down at the lake. Would you like a ride there?"
"No, thank you. I’ll walk." Without another word, she hurried from the house.
"A mile?" he shouted after her departing figure, but Samantha kept walking.
Her long legs carried her in a swift line to the white railing that separated the pasture from the road. In one leap, she vaulted the fence and continued to the lake. A mile was nothing to her and Uncle Owen knew that. It was just a ploy to try to drag more information from her. Samantha was glad she’d managed to avoid him.
As she marched across the newly-mowed field, she inhaled the fresh scent and watched a pair of colts cavort. Normally their antics made her smile, but today she was too troubled to enjoy their play. She had to find Eric…her friend and confidant. No secret was too deep—no subject taboo. They couldn’t have been closer if they’d come from the same womb. Each was always there to lend support to the other. But now she was about to pit brother against brother. She prayed it didn’t cost her Eric, too.
Seeing him hard at work putting a white coat of paint on the boat house, Samantha quickened her step. He was as handsome as his older brother and boasted the same physical attributes, but unless people were told, no one could guess he and Kelly were brothers. Eric’s coloring was a duplicate of Samantha’s and the two could easily pass for siblings.
Seeing her, Eric shoved his brush into a nearby bucket of water, then covered the can of paint. The look on his face told her he’d already heard the news and it pissed him off. Who said blood was thicker than water?
"Aw, Sam." He opened his arms.
She threw herself into the comforting port he offered. "What am I going to do? I hurt so bad."
"I feel like punching him out. Maybe if I talk to him."
"I just did. I told him how I feel, and he feels the same. But he feels obligated to marry her. She’s pregnant."
Eric muttered a string of curses. "I should’ve guessed. Leave it to him to do the right thing, no matter how wrong it is." He rubbed circles on her back. "How ’bout a swim? You know how relaxed you feel afterward."
While he retrieved the beach towels from his small truck, Samantha slipped into the swimsuit she kept in the boat house, then stepped to the edge of the dock, and dove into the familiar, soothing water. Eric was quick to follow.
An hour later, exhausted from the exercise, they stretched out on an old blanket to sun themselves.
"He kissed me today…bared my chest and…you know what I mean." The memory warmed her inside and out.
"It felt wonderful…and so right. I wish he hadn’t stopped." She gave a humorless chuckle. "So much for saving myself for Kelly. I feel like going to bed with the first guy I see."
"Lucky me." His light-hearted remark lifted her sagging spirits.
"From what Lisa Jones says, I think it’d be ‘lucky me,’" she countered with a laugh.
He braced himself on one elbow, a cocky grin on his face. "The little snitch. Wait ’til I get my hands on her tonight."
Samantha gave him a playful shove.
"Don Marshall wants to go out with you. Want me to give him a call? We can make this a double date tonight."
"Yes, do it." She needed to go out; to get on with her life. "I’ll wait here while you call."
"I suppose you want me to make sure Kelly is within earshot when I make the call."
"What would be the point?" She’d never played those kinds of games with people in the past. Why start now? Someone would only get hurt…more than they already were.
Eric snorted. "Kelly’s a fool. You’re ten times the woman Loretta is."
Samantha listened to him walk away, then flicked away tears that slipped from beneath her closed lids.
* * *
Kelly studied the estate ledgers once more, for all the good it did. He was more troubled than ever. Doubt assaulted him. Samantha loves me. There was no law that said he had to marry Loretta. He could easily take responsibility for the child without marriage. He and Sam had a right to be happy; to see their dreams come true.
He jerked up when his brother rushed into the room.
"Gotta make a phone call. I’ll just be a minute." Eric snatched up the cordless and sat on the couch.
"Is it necessary to do it in here?"
His brother ignored him. "Hey, Don, got plans for the night?…Want to double date?…Me and Lisa. You and Sam. She might be interested in taking you up on your offer…Okay…see you later…We’ll pick you up." He tossed the phone back to the desk.
Kelly raised his eyebrows and looked at Eric. "Mind telling me what that was all about?"
Eric shrugged. "Just setting up a date for Sam for tonight."
Kelly stared a hole through him. "Sounded more like you were setting her up with a lover."
Eric lifted his chin to a defiant tilt. "Maybe I was." He ducked through the door without another word.
Kelly tried to deal with the sudden rush of pain and jealousy. He tried to tell himself it was for the best, no matter how badly it might hurt him. Maybe it would help her get over him faster and she’d find someone her own age to love. But the idea of someone loving the woman he longed for was almost too much to bear.
With an angry shove, he pushed away from the desk and grabbed the phone to make his own plans with Loretta and her father for that night.
* * *
"I understand you wanted to speak to me." Phillip Peters eased into the overstuffed chair across from the matching green tweed sofa.
Loretta clung to Kelly’s side like the leech she was.
Kelly calmly appraised the older man, transfixed on the point where his gray hairline had begun a steady retreat. For the first time, Kelly wondered about Loretta’s mother as he realized her blonde looks didn’t match her father’s much darker ones. The only similarity between them was in their rich brown eyes.
In the two hours since he’d called, Kelly had rehearsed what he planned to say. Now faced with the opportunity to speak, he found it difficult to begin. Loretta’s nearness didn’t help. In fact, it irritated him and put him on edge when he wanted to be calm and reasonable.
Just get it over with.
"Yes, Mr. Peters, I did. I’ve decided it would be doing myself and Loretta an injustice if we were to go through with this marriage. I don’t love her. We’d only be making ourselves miserable." Surely the man would want his daughter to be happy, not miserable.
Loretta gasped and clutched at Kelly’s arm.
"You loved her enough to get her pregnant." Her father’s voice stopped her dramatics.
"That has nothing to do with love. She was as much involved as I was. She deceived me and got pregnant." Harsh words for a father to hear, but it was the truth.
"I see." Phillip nestled into his chair and rested his chin on the points of his fingers. "And what about the child?"
"Once she has the baby, I’ll take it and raise it on my own."
Loretta leapt to her feet. "If you think I’m going to give you my baby, you’re crazy!"
Kelly glared at her. "Don’t play games with me. I know you have little interest in being a wife and mother."
Phillip cleared his throat, commanding their attention. "The issue here, Mr. MacLaughlin, is my daughter’s reputation. She’s pregnant and I will have her married—to you. If that doesn’t happen, she and I will be most unhappy. If I’m unhappy, I’ve been known to make life difficult for those who’ve made me unhappy."
Kelly narrowed his eyes to slits. "Are you threatening me?"
"Take it any way you wish."
"Threaten all you like. I have nothing."
A Cheshire cat grin spread over Phillip’s face. "True, but your family and the Kents do."
"My father and Alex Kent would never stand for this."
"Maybe not, but there’s little they could do to help the people they do business with. I could, for instance, raise the rents on my apartments. I believe most of your workers rent from me. Or maybe I could have them evicted. You know how difficult it is to find housing in Woods Hollow. Several of the wives work in my textile mill. They would, unfortunately, lose their jobs. The vintner, the stable managers, our field workers, the horse trainer… I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea."
Kelly was defeated and knew it. "You bastard."
"I’m glad we understand each other."
"Yeah, I understand. But this is going to be on my terms." He shoved himself to his feet and stared down his nose at Loretta. "We’ll live where I say and without the servants you claim you so desperately need. And let me give you this word of warning, Loretta. You’d better be the best wife and mother the world has known or your ass will be out the door."
He walked from the room before his escalating temper got the better of him. Loretta’s intake of breath followed him.
As Kelly opened the front door, he heard her father say, "I told you to be careful what you wished for, little girl. I just made sure you got it. You make this marriage work or I’ll cut you off without a penny."
Kelly slammed the door on the man’s laughter. He was screwed.
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