The lure of an Arizona ghost town and an introduction to popular western writer, Dillon Westover, finally convinced Dusty Dickensen to come to the aid of her identical twin sister. Dillon was her sister’s fiance, but there seemed to be trouble in paradise, so Dusty had responded to Amanda’s call for help in getting away from an abusive situation.
It wasn’t long before Dusty realized she had once again been duped and hung out to dry when her sister skipped town to leave her with Dillon and his children. When she decided to get to the bottom of why her sister would actually run away, Dusty quickly found that being Amanda had some real disadvantages. Just like in their childhood days, Dusty had to take her sister’s licks! To make matters worse, she soon found herself falling in love with her twin’s fiance! How long could she keep up the charade? And what would happen if Dillon caught on?
It only took about eight hours for Dillon Westover to realize that Amanda was not his Amanda. After a little research, he discovered the truth, but decided to keep it to himself and see how long these sisters would play him for a fool. And when the charade was finally over, someone was going to get spanked!
“Good Lord, it’s hot out here,” muttered Dusty Dickenson. She squinted against the burning Arizona sun as she stepped off the train and onto the platform. The train’s air conditioning was questionable at best, and she was glad the ride was over.
Lucky for her, Amanda had warned her to dress for the hot sun and arid heat, so she pulled her new white cowboy hat off her back and put it over her straight, shoulder length blonde hair that had three different shades in it. She stepped off the platform and down to the boardwalk as the train whistle blew behind her. On the overhead, she could hear the scratchy intercom voice call an ‘all aboard’ for the passengers waiting to get on at the next platform.
She noticed that among those waiting passengers was a girl about her size. Probably couldn’t wait to get away from this hot desert, she surmised.
She looked curiously around her and then hefted the big backpack onto her slender shoulders and headed for the train depot to find a cool drink. Her trim figure in the cutoff jeans and white tank top might have attracted many a male eye ? if there had been any around. It looked as though the only people here had been the passengers. The place was deserted and she supposed it was because it was siesta time. Naps were common in hot climates; it gave people a break from the smothering heat.
There didn’t seem to be much of anything in Nunez, Arizona, just as her twin had told her. The nearest bigger city was Fortuna, and that was twenty miles back. How the hell Amanda had ended up out here in the back of the beyond, in an old ghost town, she couldn’t imagine. Well, actually she could, since her twin had told her all about it in the letter she had written her. It was a desperate letter that Dusty had stored in her backpack, one that had brought her out here to rescue her sister ? as usual.
Dusty had spent years taking the blame for Amanda and rescuing her from various irresponsible escapades she had gotten herself into. Apparently, this was going to be no different! She sighed and hefted the pack a little higher. She wished her sister had picked a cooler climate, for Pete’s sake!
The sweat was beading on her upper lip by the time she made it into the somewhat cooler train depot. The air was stirred by droning, overhead fans, and they did help some, but it was a long way from the air conditioning she was used to. She wiped the sweat off with the back of her hand and then took off her scarf to wipe her forehead. It might not be humid in this atmosphere, but it was still work to carry a thirty-pound pack around!
As she mopped her face, she noticed two children sitting side by side on one of the dusty wooden benches. Strange… she didn’t see any adults about, except a man at the refreshments counter and another selling tickets.
They were holding hands and both turned to stare at her with big eyes. They were beautiful children. The boy had auburn curls that looked as though they belonged on a girl, and innocent green eyes. The little girl had reddish-blonde curls with those same green eyes, so it was easy to surmise that they might come from the same family. The boy looked to be about six years old, and the little girl couldn’t be more than three or four, Dusty mused as she made her way to the scarred and scratched-up wooden service counter.
She had a soft spot for children ? always had. Maybe one day, she would have some of her own. Mom had told her that she’d have to settle down in one place long enough to catch a man first!
Dusty wasn’t very interested in catching a man, though ? not in today’s society. Her opinion of men wasn’t very high, especially after her ex-boyfriend, Alan. What a conniving cheat he had been!
The hum of the cooler behind the tall proprietor made her mouth feel even more parched than it already was, and she fished in her shorts pocket for some change. “You got a cold coke back there?” she asked, bringing a handful of change out.
“Sure do,” he replied cheerfully, opening the cooler and taking out an ice-cold plastic bottle of her life’s blood. “What about the kids ? you want something for them, too? They look pretty hot.”
“The kids?” Dusty looked bewildered and he pointed at her elbow.
“Michael and Christy ? they look hot. It’s not really the right time of day to be out in the heat. I’m surprised Dillon brought you all into town with him.”
“These aren’t my kids,” protested Dusty. She looked down, and the little girl’s eyes filled with tears. She was shocked when the little boy put his arm around his sister in a protective gesture, and glared at her.
“It’s all right, Christy. Maybe Mandy don’t have enough money for all of us,” he told her.
“You can have one on me,” the clerk said stiffly, pulling a bottle of water out of the cooler. “But you better have water; I don’t think your dad wants you to have soda, does he?”
They both shook their heads, and Dusty stared first at them and then at the clerk, as he opened the bottle and handed it to them. He shot her a disgusted look, his handlebar mustache waggling in obvious disapproval.
That was when it finally occurred to her that maybe she’d been mistaken for her sister. The boy had called her Mandy ? Amanda’s nickname. And, Amanda had said that her fianc? had two children, a boy and a girl. But what were they doing here alone? Where was Amanda? She looked around for a bathroom that her sister might be in, but didn’t see any in the immediate vicinity. Puzzled, she turned back to the clerk.
“Now, wait a minute ? I’m not Amanda, if that’s what you’re thinking. But I’d like to know where my sister is! She was supposed to meet me here.”
The clerk looked at her as if she was crazy and shook his head. “Just because you changed clothes, I’m supposed to believe you have a sister?” His mouth curled into an amused smile. “It’ll take more than that, Miss Dickenson. Is this some kind of joke or something?” Privately, he thought Dillon must have lost his mind to put up with this spoiled city girl. It seemed obvious to everyone but Dillon that she didn’t belong here.
“Amanda! What are you doing in town?” They all looked to the door and Dusty saw a tall man striding towards them, an angry frown on his face. “I saw the buckboard outside and couldn’t believe my eyes!”
Dusty could barely believe her own eyes as she watched his long stride eat up the floor. If this was her sister’s fianc?, how could she want to leave him? He was just the kind of man Dusty dreamed about but figured didn’t exist on this planet.
Thick, auburn hair sprang up in waves and was cut in a smart line along the base of his neck. It was combed neatly back, but a stray wave brushed down the front of his forehead, leading to startling green eyes that seemed to bore right through her. They left her feeling weak in the knees.
From his strong jaw line to the attitude that clung to him like a second skin, he appeared to be a man that brooked little nonsense! Her mouth watered at his firm, sensual lips that might easily tease and torment a woman into frantic passion, and a body she was sure could take her to the brink of heaven’s gate. She drank in his broad shoulders, lean and narrow hips, powerful thighs and muscled legs in cowboy boots and jeans.
Her mouth felt dry as he approached, looking completely unhappy ? with her! No ? with Amanda! She wondered uneasily what her sister had done.
“Daddy!” squealed Christy, launching herself at the big cowboy. He caught her up in his strong, tanned arms as though she was nothing but a piece of fluff on the wind.
“Mandy didn’t have enough money, Daddy, so that man there gave us a bottle of water,” chimed in Michael, holding out his water bottle.
‘Daddy’ nodded to the clerk. “Thanks, Rob, I owe you one.”
“No problem,” replied Rob.
“Let’s go,” he hissed at Dusty through gritted teeth. “It’s getting late and the kids look hot. I can’t believe you came to town in this heat, especially with Michael and Christy. I was just leaving town myself when I saw the buckboard. You have some explaining to do!”
She assumed he was trying to keep his voice low for Rob’s benefit, but Dusty wasn’t sure how to react. Her stomach was quivering with shock and surprise.
“Look ? there seems to be some mistake here. I’m not Amanda,” she replied in a low, breathless tone. “I have to assume you’re talking about Amanda, because she’s my identical twin, but I’m not her!”
Christy’s father set her on her feet and turned to Michael. “Take your sister to the buckboard, Michael. I’ll be right out, okay?” He then took Dusty’s arm and moved her towards the door, out of hearing from the men behind them. “I don’t know what game you’re trying to play here, but if you don’t get your little butt to the buckboard right now, I’m going to ignore Jack and Rob and spank it all the way out there! I’m not in the mood for childish histrionics today, got it?”
Dusty’s eyes went wide and her ardor instantly cooled. Suspicion began to take its place. Did he actually say ‘spank’? Was this the kind of beatings that Amanda had written about? Good Lord, no wonder her sister was having fits, if it was true! No one had ever spanked Amanda; it had always been Dusty that took her licks for her!
She was beginning to get that duped feeling again ? that feeling she always got when she dealt with her spoiled sister. Amanda had left her holding the proverbial bag more than once, and it sure seemed as if she had done it again! Her eyes narrowed. “You’re Dillon, right ? Amanda’s fianc??”
He looked ready to bite nails! “You know very well who I am, Amanda, and you’re going to get acquainted with my hand again real soon, too! You’ve never once mentioned having a sister, let alone a twin! I don’t know what kind of selfish game you’re playing at today, but I want you to stop it right now and get moving!”
There was no denying the threat in his tone; Dusty could read it a mile away. Plainly, he was not happy with Amanda. Spanking was from the dark ages, though ? he couldn’t possibly be serious. Her stomach shifted uneasily.
“Daddy!” The scream was from Michael and they both immediately ran outside to see Christy lying in the back of the buckboard, her little face as red as fire.
“Christy’s sick, Daddy! Christy’s sick!” Michael was jumping up and down, tears streaming down his face.
Dillon swore and sprang into the buckboard to kneel at his daughter’s side.
One look at the little girl, and the nurse in Dusty went into high gear. “Get those clothes off her! Take them off! Michael, give me that water bottle.” She grabbed the bottle and hopped into the buckboard while Dillon quickly stripped Christy of her jeans and shirt. She poured the cold water on the little girl’s wrists and then along her neck. “We’ve got to get her out of this sun; she’s suffering from heat exhaustion. Who the hell put her in heavy jeans on a day like today, anyway?” She glared up at Dillon, who was staring oddly at her.
Dusty took the shirt, wet it with the water bottle and washed Christy’s face and body to bring her temperature down. “Where’s the nearest place with real air conditioning around here?” she asked. She poured water on the little girl’s lips, letting some of it dribble into her mouth. Christy moaned.
“The mercantile, I think,” he replied. “Come on.” He picked Christy up and jumped off the back of the wagon with his bundle, his strides eating up the boardwalk. Dusty took Michael’s hand and followed Dillon at a fast walk until they reached the interior of what looked like an old trading shop in some tourist trap. Dusty felt instant relief. It wasn’t cold, but certainly cooler ? and it was out of the sun.
“I’ll take her,” said Dusty, sitting down on the nearest bench and holding her arms out for the little girl. Awkwardly, as if he wasn’t used to it, Dillon lowered the child into her arms and watched through narrowed eyes as she swabbed her tiny body with more cool water.
After a few minutes, the little girl opened her eyes and stared up at Dusty. “Manda?” she croaked.
“I’m right here, sweetie. You’re going to be fine.” Dusty held up the water bottle. “I want you to drink some of this water and then lie on the bench with your feet in my lap. Do you think you can do that for me?” She smiled ingratiatingly and the little girl nodded.
Dusty held the bottle while she took several small sips before she lay on the bench as requested. “Does your tummy hurt?”
“No, not anymore,” mumbled Christy with a yawn. “It did in the wagon, but now it’s okay.”
“Can I have a drink?” Michael asked, eyeing the water bottle.
“Of course you can, sweetie,” replied Dusty, holding the bottle out for him. “You look kind of pale, too. Why don’t you sit down and lean against the wall for a while?” She checked his face to see if he felt clammy. “Does your tummy hurt?”
“No, I’m okay; just a little tired.” He yawned widely before taking a drink.
“I’m going back to the depot and get a couple of more water bottles,” said Dillon. “I’ll be right back.” He nodded to Dusty and she could see he was no longer angry, but he did look guarded.
While he was gone, Dusty considered her options. It was obvious to her now that Amanda must have planned to switch places with her. She might even have been one of the passengers that had gotten on at the next platform after watching her get off, damn her! She knew that figure had looked familiar; it was almost exactly like hers!
Amanda knew that Dusty would fix whatever mess she was in, and then it would be okay for her to come back. But what kind of mess was she in? Should she insist that she was Dusty and not Amanda? It would be easy to prove with her drivers’ license, credit cards and other personal items. Or should she lie low and pretend to be Amanda, so she could get the real scoop?
She pondered going along with Dillon thinking she was Amanda, to see how he treated her sister. Everyone knew what assholes men could be, and if she convinced him about who she really was, he’d probably lie about everything Amanda had told her! It only took her an instant to decide after that thought. Oh well, what the heck, she had some time to kill; she’d play along and see what happened. Too bad he was so sinfully good-looking, because even that didn’t make up for a lousy character.
Having made up her mind, she relaxed for a few minutes and took out her bottle of coke. Lord, but that tasted good! It went down her parched throat and energized her back into a decent human being again! She closed her eyes to relax for a minute.
“I told you not to come out in this heat.” The voice was coming from above her and she realized she hadn’t heard him come back. Sneaky devil! “Are you all right?”
His tone was suddenly kinder and she opened an eye to peek up at him. He now looked like a normal man and not some avenging demon. That was an improvement.
“Uhh… yeah. Yeah, I know… but, umm… I just needed to get out for a few minutes. I was getting cabin fever.”
“We will be discussing this later, you know.”
She studied him for a moment, assessing what that might mean. She arched a delicate brow and he mimicked her expression. She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to say. Was he looking for an apology? She supposed she should dredge one up from somewhere. “Okay, so… I’m sorry. I guess I shouldn’t have brought the kids out in this heat.”
“No, you shouldn’t have, especially after I warned you specifically not to!” His green eyes glittered down at her.
“Well… um… like I said, I needed a break.”
“And that’s your excuse for dragging the kids around?”
“I didn’t think… I guess the heat doesn’t bother me that much, so I just didn’t think it through well enough.”
“That’s the biggest understatement I’ve heard yet! And since when does the heat not bother you? You’re usually prostrate on the sofa at home by this time of day, refusing to even look outside.”
Dusty couldn’t help it; sarcasm came naturally. “So sue me,’” she drawled, her blue-gray eyes flashing. She was obviously going to have to be more careful, or he’d figure it out a lot faster than she wanted him to. She hadn’t thought about Amanda and her indolent ways. She probably didn’t like the heat and would never have come out, if she hadn’t been so sure of her escape route! Damn her, anyway, dragging children around in this! She deserved a beating, as far as Dusty was concerned! Okay, no, she didn’t mean that ? no one deserved to be beat up.
“Oh, you’ll pay for this, but not with a lawsuit, as I’m sure you’re quite aware.”
Dusty shrugged. At least he didn’t seem angry anymore, but that was a rather cryptic remark. Just how was she supposed to be paying for this? Amanda had said he paid her to help with the kids; was he going to take it out of her wages? Then it suddenly occurred to her that if she was going to be Amanda, she might have to take Amanda’s licks for her! Did he really beat her? Surely not!
He’d have a problem on his hands, if he thought he could knock her about; she knew how to protect herself and wouldn’t hesitate to throw him flat on his butt, if he tried anything. Maybe now she would get at the truth, though, and she could figure out what to do from there. She felt a little queasy at the thought of physical violence and she hoped her sister wasn’t mixed up in that sort of a domestic situation.
And, if worst came to worst, she also had her small handgun in her purse. But hopefully, Amanda wouldn’t have actually dumped her into a situation where that would be required! No, her sister was spoiled, but she didn’t think she would put Dusty in actual physical danger.
Unsure what else she could say, Dusty ignored Dillon and rummaged about in her pack. She took out a plain white T-shirt and slipped it on Christy. No jeans and long sleeved shirt to ride home in ? she needed something cooler and reflective of the heat! “Are you feeling better now?” she asked the little girl, feeling her cheeks with the back of her hand. “You’re a lot cooler, anyway.” She smiled gently at her and brushed her curls behind her ears. “You sure are a pretty thing.”
Christy crawled up into her lap and hugged her around the neck. “I’m all better and ready to go home,” she announced.
Dusty hugged the little girl back, loving the way she felt in her arms. Children were so expressive of their feelings, with nothing hidden about them, usually ? unless they were being mistreated.
Dillon kneeled in front of his son. “You ready to go, sport?” Michael nodded and held out his arms to be picked up.
Dusty cautiously watched the interplay between Dillon and his son. Michael certainly didn’t show any signs of fear.
“Then let’s get home and out of this heat!”
Armed with their water bottles, they carried the children to the buckboard and set them in the back. Then Dusty climbed up on the buckboard seat, although she would have rather climbed onto the horse that was tied to the rear of the wagon. He was a beautiful Paint, his black and white markings excellent, and she would love to ride him. She knew Amanda didn’t like horses, though, so she didn’t say anything.
She looked around with curiosity, the terrain vastly different than the green, rolling hills of Kentucky. The beautiful maple and oak trees of her home state were replaced with sagebrush shrubs and scrub oak. Here and there, a few desert flowers put forth tentative green tendrils with an occasional bloom to brighten the reddish soil. They were the beginnings of the somewhat moist spring season, not that there was much rainfall over an entire year. The desert would hold itself in reserve until the mountain snow run-off transformed it into brilliant color.
The children chattered behind her and she listened to them while the horses clip-clopped across the packed ground, over gullies, and around hills until they came to the edge of what looked like the ghost town Amanda had written about. It was one of the cajoling reasons Amanda had given her for coming out here.
“You can finally see one of your stupid old ghost towns, Dusty,” Amanda had noted. Dusty stared with interest at what was left of the broken-down adobe brick buildings and other assorted rubble. Fascinating! She couldn’t wait to get the chance to explore it.
Weathered wood that had nearly withstood the test of time and harsh weather sagged and sported worn and broken areas that were slowly deteriorating. It was one of many small towns that had sprung up in the nineteenth century during the land exploration, and then had been abandoned when wells had gone dry, mines had run out, or whatever the reason was that had sent settlers on their way. The climate itself was pretty harsh, and it would have taken brave souls to pin all their hopes on the harsh lands of the Sonora desert. She could take some great pictures here, though; it was wild and beautiful.
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask Dillon how the book was coming but she figured Amanda would already know that. Besides, the heat was exhausting, and she couldn’t think of anything else to say to him. So she kept her silence and studied him furtively now and then from the corner of her eye. She went over what little information she had about him. Amanda had come with him six weeks ago when he had decided to use this old ghost town as the setting for his newest Tanner Weston, Texas Ranger novel. She was supposed to help with the kids while he was working. Dusty had initially thought that Amanda had finally found true love, if she was willing to do that for someone, but now she was beginning to wonder. There was obviously trouble in paradise!
The trip through the middle of the town was uneventful, although it gave her an eerie feeling to see the dilapidated bat-wing doors swinging in the gentle breeze as they passed what was left of an old saloon. She shivered as she wondered how many men had lost their lives in that bar before more peaceful times had made it to this part of the territories. How many gunfights had there been in the middle of this dirt street? It was both fascinating and nerve-racking to think about!
She was a big fan of Tanner Weston books and had been thrilled when Amanda said she was dating the author. Actually, she had been envious as hell! Now, here she was riding next to him and she wondered why he had never put his picture on one of his covers? With his hot good looks, he might have sold a lot more books!
Dillon Westover slid another furtive glance sideways at Amanda, his curiosity growing. She seemed totally enthralled with the town as she never had before. Either she was dreading her upcoming spanking and didn’t want to talk, or something else was bothering her. Not wanting to talk was unusual. He had never noticed how much she chattered until they had arrived in Sand Hollow six weeks ago. To be honest, it was downright annoying.
He had thought she and the kids would be good company for each other, and that they would have the chance to bond to her. But they hadn’t been here a week before he realized his mistake. Living in close quarters like this without much entertainment was taking a toll on her, although he had warned her about that before they had come.
It was also becoming increasingly obvious that she wasn’t as interested in the kids as he had previously thought. In fact, she was turning out to be rather selfish, which was not a good trait in a mother or in a wife. In other words, he was having second thoughts in a major way!
This stunt today was just about the last straw, as far as he was concerned. He didn’t think he could marry her after all, not when she was willing to disobey him and put the children in danger just because she was bored. He was going to give her a damned good spanking this time, one she would remember for a while. Hopefully, that would straighten her out, but if she didn’t change her attitude, he’d take her back to Phoenix in six weeks and break up with her.