“Sometimes I want to take off the top of your head and screw your brain in right.” Turning from his brother, Daniel Beckett gripped the wrench and tightened the last spoke on his vintage Harley, his pride and joy, as though demonstrating the procedure. "You can’t be serious.”
“Never more serious in my life, Danny-boy,” Tom replied. “Don’t make like you’re so surprised.”
Dan stared up at his identical twin standing with their father’s old duffel bag slung over his shoulder, and shock stole any words he might have come up with. He dropped the wrench with a clang and stood, wiping his grimy hands on the jersey he’d appropriated from Tom.
Tom’s dark, troubled gaze swept over the shiny black bike without seeing it and returned to Dan. “I can’t stay, man.”
He turned and faced the road.
Dan struggled with the reality of just how miserable his brother was here. Tom hated the orchards and the rural Nebraska life, always had. “I know last night was bad. Dad rides you—”
“Rides me?” Tom cut in with biting sarcasm. “He has never, for one second, got off my butt for leaving college. He talks to me like I’m some kind of idiot. Like I’m an embarrassment to him, to all of you.”
Dan scrambled for words to keep his brother home. The night before, there had been another shouting match. As usual, Dan had tried to smooth things over and only gotten himself involved in the argument. Now their father was angry with both of them.
“He thinks he knows what’s best for you, Tom. Dad wants you to take over Beckett Orchards someday.”
Tom swung around, dropping the duffel bag. “I don’t want the damned orchards!” he snapped through clenched teeth. “If I stay he’ll keep bending me. He’ll make me work the farm. He’ll make me walk and talk and act like he wants me to." The evening sun was setting behind his shoulder. “I can’t bend anymore.” His tone changed, becoming low-timbered as he confessed, “I’ll break.”
Dan’s chest ached with a growing panic. Maybe if he’d tried harder, fought harder, he could have made a difference.
“Danny, it’s me. Not you,” Tom said.
Tom always knew what he was thinking. Dan met his knowing gaze, and nodded. He shuddered to think of his father’s reaction to this. Whether Tom wanted to admit it or not, he was Gil Beckett’s pride and joy. Or so it had always seemed to Dan. Then his thoughts shifted and something in his heart contracted. “What about Lorraine?” he asked.
Tom and everyone else called her Lorrie, but Dan always thought of her as Lorraine. The name Lorraine held the air of mystery and femininity she deserved.
Tom tilted his dark head and shrugged. “What about her?”
The offhand question sparked the first flame of anger in Dan’s gut. There was a time when he’d had his own eye on Lorraine Loring, but after Tom quit college and came home, Gil had done his best to push a relationship between them, and Lorraine was crazy about Tom. But deep in his heart, Dan had harbored an insane hope that if things didn’t work out with Tom, she might turn to him. He shook his head to clear the image. “What did you tell her?”
Tom choked back a laugh. “Tell her? Man, I haven’t told anybody anything.”
“You’re going to leave without so much as a good-bye?”
Tom scraped his jaw with a thumb. “I’m sorry about her,” he said. “Dad pushed her on me. I like her,” he added quickly. “I just don’t want to marry her. Dad told me last week it’s time to take on responsibilities, get married. Well, I don’t want to marry anybody. At least not until I’m damned good and ready.”
“Then tell Dad that,” Dan coaxed. “Tell him you don’t want to marry her.”
Tom snorted. “Oh, right. And for once you think he’s going to listen? He won’t believe the farm isn’t my thing. Why would he believe Lorrie isn’t my thing either? He’d make my life hell.”
Dan didn’t argue. He knew Tom was right. It would take something drastic—something more than talk to sway the old man. “Shouldn’t you at least tell her?”
Tom stubbed his booted toe into the dirt and shook his head. He looked past Dan’s shoulder. “She’ll get over it.”
Anger seethed in Dan’s chest. In the distance a car stirred up a cloud of dust on the road. “If you’re going, get it the hell over with then.”
Angrily, Tom scooped up the bag. Their eyes met and held. On the outside they were mirror images of each other. On the inside they were as different as night and day. Dan wished like hell he could solve this problem. Wished he could say or do something that would make a difference. But he knew his brother’s discontent, and he knew, too, that there were no easy answers. He looked away.
Dan waited for his brother to speak.
“Tell Mom I love her. She’s the last one I’d want to hurt. It’s just that—” he raised his face to the lengthening summer shadows “—I can’t take this anymore.”
Their mother’s stroke had left her bedridden for the past eight months. “Sure. I’ll clean up after you, Tom. I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”
Tom didn’t reply.
Finally Dan glanced around. “How are you getting there?”
Tom’s old car had needed a new fuel pump for a month. Tom hefted the bag over his shoulder. “Someone will come along,” he said with his usual careless confidence.
Dan dug in his jeans pocket, came out with the key to his bike and threw it to Tom.
Tom stared at the key in his open palm. “You’ve barely paid it off.”
“Seems like a good deal to me, trading a bike for a farm.”
Tom turned and tied the bag on the back of the Harley. He threw one leg over the seat and started the engine. Levering the kickstand up with his heel, he headed toward the open road.
Dan’s brother and his bike grew rapidly smaller until both disappeared, leaving a cloud of dust on the gravel road. An unfamiliar emptiness filled him, one he wasn’t sure how to deal with, let alone explain.
Tom was gone. His brother. His twin. Half of himself.
As though by rote, he turned, picked up his spoke wrench, dropped it into the toolbox, and closed the lid. His promise to explain things to their mother, their father, and to Lorraine closed in with suffocating heaviness. Dear God, what had he done? What had Tom done?
He slumped down on the dented lid of the metal toolbox. From inside the garage, the radio announcer predicted fair weather for the extended forecast. Tom would have a safe trip. Wherever he was headed.
A fresh shard of anger knifed through Dan’s chest. Anger at the sudden twist of fate; at being left behind, which was crazy because this was where he wanted to be; at once again taking on the garbage end of the deal and picking up the pieces while Tom went his own merry way.
An hour later, he still sat on the toolbox, chilled by the cool evening breeze, his butt numb. He was no closer to an answer. How was he going to tell his father and break the old man’s heart? It was no secret that Gil Beckett favored Thomas, the son born only minutes before Dan. Tom had the love and approval Dan craved, and he’d just thrown it all away.
Dan carried the metal box to the garage. He might as well get it over with. Come clean. Let the chips fall where they may.
Behind him, gravel crunched. He stepped out of the garage and squinted at the headlights of the car that had pulled in. The engine died and the lights went out. There was no mistaking the old Buick. Lorraine Loring got out, closed the door and walked toward him.
His heart thundered against his ribs. Not now. Not yet. He hadn’t had a chance to talk to his father, hadn’t planned what he’d say, hadn’t come to grips with it in his own mind.
“We need to talk.” Her voice trembled with something strangely like fear. Did she know already? How? Had Tom done the right thing and stopped by on his way to the great unknown? The scent of jasmine floated to him on the night air. His heart kicked into high gear. Tom was gone. Tom was gone. Tom was gone.
And Lorraine was here.
The breeze loosened a silken tendril of hair the rich color of chocolate from her ponytail.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, intuitively sensing he wouldn’t like the answer.
“Tom, I... ”
Oh, hell. Dan glanced down at the faded jersey he wore. Tom’s shirt. As she often did—as everyone did— she’d mistaken him for his brother. He opened his mouth to speak, but she stopped him by pressing her index finger against his lips. The touch struck him like a bolt of lightning and rooted him to the spot. He couldn’t have spoken if his life had depended on it.
“I’m scared,” she said, tears glistening in the moonlight.
Her fear—and the vulnerability in her eyes—did something queer to Dan’s insides.
“Tom, I—I’m pregnant.”
The evening sounds faded to silence. Her words rang in Dan’s head. She stood in front of him trembling, waiting...waiting for what? His shock? Anger? Rejection?
Rejection. Like Tom’s refusal to marry this girl, or anyone? Like his flip “she’ll get over it”? Like his leaving? Not that Tom had known, but his actions would be a rejection all the same. Lorraine—and her baby—didn’t deserve that.
“Damn,” he said, cursing his brother.
“It was just that one time,” she said on a sob. “I didn’t think it would happen.”
She bit her lower lip and Dan’s heart wrenched. “But it did,” he finished for her.
She nodded. Her gaze touched his and her chin quivered. “Tom?”
He took her delicate shoulders in his hands. It was the first time he’d ever touched her and he liked it. More than he should have, but as much as he’d always known he would. Willingly she came to him—make that to Tom—and nestled against his chest. The tremors in her body arrowed straight to his soul and rekindled his anger. How could Tom have left her like this? How?
Beneath his chin, her soft hair beckoned exploration. He tunneled his callused fingers through the silken strands. Her firm young breasts pressed against him in a delectable fashion. If he was going to tell her, he should tell her now. He could easily grow addicted to her nearness. He’d watched her for years, wanted her from a distance, but she’d been chosen for Tom.
The thought that crept into his mind surpassed stupidity. That he entertained it in a rational state bordered on insanity. Sitting on that toolbox must have numbed his brain as well as his backside.
A soft shudder passed through her frame and her damp tears soaked through Tom’s shirt. How long he held her, he wasn’t sure. Finally sounds entered his consciousness: the motor tinging as it cooled beneath the hood of her father’s Buick; locusts in the orchards; LeAnn Rimes’ sultry voice from radio in the garage singing about underneath the starlight…’there's a magical feeling, so right…it'll steal your heart tonight.’
In the end, he really didn’t have a choice. No way could he make himself say the words. Tom’s gone and he won’t be back. Your baby’s father ran off and deserted you. But, hey—you’ll get over it. Had she not been pregnant, had she been someone else, he might have been able to explain things better.
But she wasn’t. She was Lorraine. And he wanted her.
‘Can’t fight the moonlight, no….’
She pulled back and gazed up, her expression so lovely and vulnerable it hurt. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
The decision was surprisingly easy. “It’s not your fault,” he said shortly. “We can get married.”
She caught her breath.
“Will you marry me?” he asked.
Lorraine nodded and burst into tears against his brother’s jersey.
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