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At thirty, Cutter Joe Jackson was the oldest of the three Jackson brothers. One year older than Caleb and three years older than Eli, he was their natural-born leader and didn’t care who knew it. Fearless and protective, he was a force to be reckoned with. And, okay, maybe Eli was known as the brains of the family, and maybe Caleb had more patience than the rest of them put together, but they both still looked to Cutter for leadership.
No one knew more about the ins and outs of the family business than he did.
Not even his father, or his father before him.
Fishing trawlers, dive boats, yachts and deep-sea fishing charter cruisers were berthed at Jacksons’ Marina these days—many of them Jackson owned and operated. Cutter’s days were mapped out for him by the wind and the tide, and there was nowhere else he’d rather be than on this perfect stretch of Australian coastline, with the river winding to the west, the Pacific Ocean to the east and all of it his for the taking.
Paradise was his and he could be generous in his sharing of it.
Both his brothers had recently acquired wives and Cutter had welcomed them into the family with enthusiasm. The newest Jackson wives were fine women who gave more to the family mix than they took from it. If they could just bring themselves to recognize his innate authority the way everyone else did, life would be downright perfect.
Eli’s wife, Zoey, had a bad habit of wanting to dress him up in Lycra superhero costumes, at which point his other sister-in-law, Breanna, would be called in to take photos.
Cutter had suffered the indignity several times now, because he loved the new additions to his family and because for every ounce of cooperation he gave he extracted concessions from them.
Home-cooked meals for the hungry, hardworking bachelor.
Lazy, hazy Friday afternoon get-togethers at the marina—a Jackson tradition that emphatically didn’t need to stop now that wives were involved.
Firstborn nephews with Cutter as their middle name.
Cutter was pretty sure Eli didn’t know about that particular promise of Zoey’s yet, but Cutter intended to see that she kept it. He didn’t wear a wet loincloth, carry a three-pronged pitchfork and drape himself across a wave-drenched rock for just any old reason.
No. Modeling Zoey’s Poseidon costume had demanded extreme payment.
He leaned on Eli’s drafting table, situated in the tidiest corner of the marina boatshed. The boatshed was a long, wrought-iron building with an office up one end, Eli’s workspace next to it, then Caleb’s dive school equipment, and finally the boat repair workshop towards the slipway at the far end of the shed. Eli’s section was the cleanest, Caleb’s the most organized. Cutter’s section resembled a graveyard where once-functional boat engines had been brought to die, but woe betide anyone who tried to tidy it up. Cutter knew exactly where everything was, thank you very much.
“What about Billy Joe Cutter Jackson? Got a good ring to it,” he told Eli.
“What?” Eli looked up from the latest set of boat-building plans that he’d been explaining, mainly because Cutter had been fool enough to stop and show an interest.
“You’re right. Bit of a mouthful. What about Cutter Joe Jackson Junior? Until death do I part, at which point he can be just plain Cutter Joe Jackson the Second.”
A faint hint of alarm widened Eli’s gray eyes. Women had written odes to those eyes. Cutter could have conquered the world with those eyes. Alas, he had to make do with mostly green eyes, liberally flecked with the gray.
“Is this your way of telling me you got some woman pregnant?” asked Eli.
“No! I’m not talking about my offspring, genius. I’m talking about yours.” Cutter figured a heavy sigh wouldn’t hurt at this point. “And they say you’re the smart one.”
“Zoey’s pregnant?” Eli was beginning to look a little pale.
“Not yet. Or, not that I know of,” he amended. “But you need to get working on that. There’s naming to be done.”
“I—what are we talking about?” Finally, he had captured Eli’s undivided attention.
It was a sad disconnect in communication that Eli no longer had his.
The woman currently standing in the side entrance to Jacksons’ Marina wasn’t a Brunswick Bay native. If she had been, Cutter would have made it his business to know more about her. Small, inconsequential things like how she liked her coffee in the morning, and bigger, more pressing concerns like how best she might want to be loved.
“Earth calling Cutter.” Eli’s voice came at him, thoroughly exasperated.
“Later,” he murmured, without taking his eyes off the vision of windswept, kickass beauty that had just sauntered into his life. She had dark, cat-like eyes and a waterfall of long auburn hair. He wouldn’t call her skinny, that would have been an exaggeration but there wasn’t much of her. A sea-green sundress lovingly showcased pert breasts and ended somewhere north of mid-thigh, leaving a whole lot of creamy skin to no one’s imagination. He’d never seen skin the color of creamrose pearls anywhere outside of his mother’s porcelain doll collection.
Could be that his mother’s penchant for storing those dolls behind glass was contributing to Cutter’s desire to reach out and run his fingers over that flawless skin now.
She’d sunburn easy.
Bruise easy too.
His body couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be horrified or aroused by the thought of marking her.
He settled for straightening from his slouched position against Eli’s drawing table and lifting an enquiring brow.
She took her time looking him over and then raised him a perfectly arched, auburn eyebrow in return.
Long live women who gave as good as they got.
“Need some help?” he rasped when the staring had gone on quite long enough and a smile had yet to grace her temptingly plush mouth.
“Well, I guess that answers one question,” she murmured, with a sigh that spoke more of sorrow than satisfaction. “I’m looking for Geoff Jackson.”
“That would be my father.”
“Is he here?”
“He retired a few years back.” Beside him, Eli snorted softly, because, yeah, retired or not, his father still put in a couple of day’s work at the marina and pulled shifts on the trawlers whenever they were a deckhand down. Not to mention that Geoff Jackson—and his father as well—still had a great deal to say when it came to running the family business.
“So. Your father,” she prompted again. “Where might I find him?”
“Why would you want to?” asked Eli, his expression decidedly cooler than usual.
“And you are?” she said.
“My brother, Eli,” said Cutter with a puzzled glance in his youngest brother’s direction. Eli had become a lot more sociable since marrying the exuberant Zoey. He hadn’t offered up this kind off coolness towards a stranger in a while.
“You’re another one of Geoff’s sons?” she murmured and Eli nodded curtly.
Cutter watched her lips twist into a wry smile. “Are there any more of you?”
“Just the one,” Cutter told her. “What do you want from my father?”
“You’ll see,” she said, just as Caleb rounded the open roll-a-door that opened out onto the jetty. He wasn’t alone.
A guy walked beside him, same dark hair and rangy build as Caleb, same height, possibly a fraction taller. And when he turned towards them and Cutter got a load of his face—
Same face he saw every morning when he looked in the goddamn mirror.
“Who the hell are you?” Cutter watched in growing disbelief as his doppelganger spared a look for the woman in the doorway and with the slightest shift of his head, told her to get gone.
She didn’t budge.
“My brother asked you a question.” Eli broke the silence, his gaze fixed on the man at Caleb’s side.
The man scowled and ran a hand across the back of his neck, and there was a gesture Cutter knew intimately. This—whoever he was—had Cutter’s face and his habits.
“The name’s Nash.”
Even the voice was similar. Not quite as threatening as his. Maybe not quite as gruff.
And then the man lowered his hand and his gaze locked on Cutter.
“My name is Jackson Nash and I’m looking for my father. Anyone want to point me in Geoff Jackson’s direction?”
Fist. Face. Even if it was his own face. Cutter started forward, only to be met by Eli’s shoulder-check and a firm hand wrapped around his bicep.
“Does it look like he’s lying to you?” Eli muttered, low and rough, before letting go and turning to face the bastard who went by the name of Jackson. “He’s not here. He’s not in town. He’s in England.”
Cutter heard a not-so-delicate snicker coming from over near the door, and spared a menacing glare for the redhead.
“Course he is,” she murmured.
“You still haven’t said who you are.” Cutter’s words were a writhing mix of anger and confusion and he didn’t spare her any of it. Not as if she was being helpful.
“Me?” She made a show of pressing her hand to the sundress that barely covered her utterly perfect chest. “I’m Nash’s sister.”
No. Hell, no. “Lady, no one around here ordered a sister.”
She moved, pure challenge as her hands went to her hips. Her breasts heaved and he really had to stop looking at them. “Well, you’d hardly order one the same way you’d order pizza, now would you?”
“I’m guessing she’s not going to be one of those sweet, docile sisters who bakes cake and puts her brothers on a pedestal,” murmured Caleb, with a darkly amused glance in her direction. “Pity.”
“Just because she’s his sister, doesn’t mean she’s our sister.” Eli added his two cents.
Good point. Cutter was going to hold to that small but significant distinction, otherwise he was going to have to face the fact that he’d been temporarily and altogether unwittingly lusting after his sister.
Just shoot him now.
“You must be the smart one,” she murmured, eyeing Eli with frank appraisal, before turning her gaze once more to Cutter. “What does that make you?”
“Waiting for an explanation,” he grated.
“Aren’t we all,” she said.
“O-kay. Let’s all just … pause.” Caleb signaled a scuba diving stop-right-there sign and Cutter was all for it. He also wanted a rewind button, some kind of warning that the fine fisherman’s catch he’d hauled in off the trawler this morning was going to be overshadowed by a catastrophic revelation come lunchtime.
“Does my father know about you?” Caleb asked her and she had the grace to look discomforted.
Cutter spared a glance for his doppelganger. “What about you? Does he know about you?”
The man shrugged, a tight, tense motion, but he held Cutter’s gaze with a bleak one of his own. “I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?”
“Clearly you’re not the smart one,” the woman murmured, drawing his attention yet again. He scowled and watched her lips curve in reply. It was a good smile. A dazzling smile. A smile designed to challenge a man and it was directed straight at him.
He glared at her in some kind of lame attempt to deflect it. “How about you stop interrupting and let your brother speak?”
She opened her mouth to retaliate and—
“Leave it,” her brother said.
And lo if she didn’t cross her arms defensively in front of her and do what he said.
“My mother died up in Darwin a few weeks ago,” the guy continued. “We found an old photo of her outside this place in her belongings. She’d written a name and the date on the back of it. The name was familiar, seeing as I’ve been carrying it around since birth. She made mention of the name again in her will. Said I was his. I figured I’d drive by and get some answers. Ruin a few lives.”
“Good job. You could always just keep going.” Even as he said it, Cutter knew that notion was never going to fly. How was he supposed to protect his family when it was clear to anyone with eyes that this man was family?
Like it or not, the man existed.
Cutter breathed deep and raised both hands to his salt-heavy hair in an attempt to burn off some of the restless fight energy that threatened to engulf him. “Sorry. I’m—sorry.” Not a word he used all that often. “Your mother’s death … I’m sorry for your loss.”
A muscle ticked in the other man’s jaw. “Don’t be. She wasn’t the maternal type.”
“You could say we’re real familiar with foster homes,” the sister—not necessarily his sister—interjected, and that was just—
Cutter had no words for what that was, other than wrong. No way would his father have left any kid of his to be raised in foster homes. Not if he’d known. Family meant something around here.
This whole thing was wrong.
“He didn’t know about you,” Cutter couldn’t stop staring at the man who wore his face. “My father, he didn’t know.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I know him.”
Nash—because no goddamn way was he calling him Jackson—offered up a hard smile. “Lucky you.”
Fist. Face. The urge was almost irresistible.
“Don’t.” Eli pinned him with that all-seeing gray gaze. “Caleb …”
“I’m on it. I go away for one dive and all hell breaks loose,” Caleb murmured as he headed for the fridge at the back of the workshop. He opened the door, pulled out a beer, cracked it and took a long pull, with his back to them all. And then he took a breath deep enough to inflate his chest and broaden his back, reached in and withdrew another four bottles of Australia’s strongest before heading towards the redheaded witch who was currently screwing with Cutter’s brain.
“I’m Caleb,” his brother said as he held out a beer.
The woman took the beer from him with a rueful and disarmingly sweet smile. “I’m Mia. It means mine. Or beloved. My beloved. Catchy, huh? You’re going to love me.”
Wisely, Caleb made no comment. “Where are you staying?”
“At the pub in town.”
“For how long?”
“Hard to say. We might stick around.”
Caleb still held the floor. “Not a lot of work around these parts. What do you do for a living?”
“I draw pretty pictures.”
“That’s a living?”
“Sometimes it is.”
Caleb crossed to the doppelganger next and held out a beer. The man shook his head in refusal, but that was okay; Cutter would take two. Did take two, as Caleb held out the cluster of beers to him.
What do we do? Caleb’s look asked the question for him. Wordless communication a function of growing up in each other’s pockets and working together on a daily basis.
Hell if I know!
“Steady, man,” Caleb murmured, and it was good advice.
Cutter looked down at the beers and made a production out of putting one of them on the table and cracking open the other one as he waited for his brain to override the chaos of his emotions. There had to be a way through this for them all.
And he would find it.
By the time Eli had a beer in hand as well, Cutter had the scratchings of a plan.
He looked up to find all eyes on him, some wary and some just plain waiting.
“You’re looking for my father and he’s not here. We can probably rouse our grandfather to meet you at the pub this evening,” he offered, his sense of fair play warring with his need to protect. “He might know something about your mother and … the rest of it.”
“Not really a question for him,” Nash said.
“Yeah, well. I don’t know who else to point you towards. Like Eli said, our father’s in the UK.”
“Any way I can contact him?”
“I could give you my mother’s mobile number, but I’m not inclined to do that at this point. They waited thirty years to take this trip.” Which begged the question. “How old are you?”
Nash’s lips twisted. “Almost thirty-one.”
“Date of birth?”
Eli choked on the beer he’d just set to his lips. Caleb helped his younger brother out with a pat on the back guaranteed to send a lighter man sprawling and a smirk that Cutter could read only too well.
Cutter wouldn’t be thirty-one until the fourth of February. The doppelganger was about six weeks older than him, which meant Cutter had just lost his elder brother status. “Not one goddamn word,” he warned them.
“No swearing around our sister,” Caleb cautioned cheerfully. “Hey, you think she’s older than you too?”
“No.” He spared her another glance and tried not to linger.
“People always look younger when they haven’t been in the sun,” Caleb countered.
“I’m right here, boys. Why don’t you ask?”
But Cutter didn’t need to ask. He’d been studying women since puberty. “Twenty-four, twenty-five, tops. The miles on her are experience driven, not time related.”
“Oh, so you’re the charmer,” she said. “How does that work out for you?”
“Can I gag her?” he asked of no one in particular.
Eli shook his head sorrowfully.
“Push her off the jetty?”
Caleb signaled the iffy-ness of that with the wiggle of a flat hand.
“Take her fishing?”
“I could go fishing,” she said.
“No!” his younger brothers said in unison. Protective already, Cutter noted with grim amusement. His protective instincts had yet to kick in.
Truth be told, when it came to Mia you’re going to love me, his instincts remained downright unbrotherly.
His brooding gaze collided with that of the older man, and for a moment Cutter thought he saw a flash of sympathy in those all too familiar shaped eyes.
“She’s twenty-five,” Nash said. “And you can tell when she’s nervous by the number of insults she starts throwing around.”
“Feel free to share,” she said, clearly stung by her big brother’s words.
It was all just too much. Cutter had tried to take her and her brother in his stride, never mind the shock. He was trying, as they spoke, to sort through the implications for his family. His father had probably—clearly—gotten two women pregnant at around about the same time, and whether he’d known about both was anyone’s guess.
Cutter was guessing not.
“I’m thirty-one in February,” he said. “I was born eight months after my parents married. It was a shotgun wedding, but they’ve been together now for thirty years. They built a life together. There was always love. Still is.” That much he could give the man who wore his face. “I don’t know where you fit in, but you might.”
His gaze slid to Mia. He didn’t know where she fit in at all, other than in his wildest fantasies. “You should go. Give us some time to adjust. See if we can get you some answers. If you’re sticking around the Bay we’ll find you. If not, well. Leave your number on the noticeboard on your way out.”
Nash nodded, before looking over at the woman. “Mia? You ready?”
Mia finished her beer with impressive speed, burped, balanced the bottle precariously on top of a carburetor on a nearby bench and turned to exit. Her legs were great, her butt was round, her dress was backless, and—
“What in hell is that?” Cutter growled. Because the creamy skin was gone, replaced by a swirling morass of fine lines and greenish-black-on-gray coloring.
“Could be a frigate,” said Eli with a tilt of his head.
“Could be a man-o’-war,” offered Caleb. “Definitely a maelstrom.”
The sinking ship tattoo covered her back from the tips of her shoulder blades to way down somewhere below the line of her dress. A work of art, drawn by a master’s hand, and it was beautiful, no question, on that backdrop of milky skin.
It was that too.
“Probably not a good idea to ask her why she did it,” Nash muttered. “Been there, done that. Didn’t end well.”
“Wouldn’t have happened on my watch.”
Nash snorted. His other brothers—the ones who were supposed to have his back—tried not to grin. Eli managed a straight face. Caleb didn’t.
Mia glanced over her shoulder at him, the lines of her face a compelling mix of sharp angles and delicate curves. “Delusion suits you,” she murmured dulcetly. “It explains so much.”
“Aw, baby sis. Still so nervous,” Cutter purred back.
Her eyes narrowed. “You want a tattoo like mine, princess, you just say the word. For you a family discount. I’ll try not to make you cry too much.”
“There are words at the bottom,” said Eli, possibly by way of trying to divert out-and-out war. Not that anyone could read the words, for they barely peeked above the silky green material of her low-slung dress.
“Stop looking at your sister’s ass,” Mia commanded.
Eli immediately turned his gaze to the boat on the slip rail. A dull hint of red crept up his darkly tanned neck. “I wasn’t—I didn’t—Dear God, just tell me when she’s gone.”
Caleb too was looking resolutely away, his attention firmly fixed on the far wall.
She had them all, the whole lot of them, tossing in a wild, roiling ocean.
And she was enjoying it.
Cutter could play the fool when he wanted to. He had a healthy appreciation for the unexpected and the absurd.
He also had a reckless streak a mile wide.
But underneath it all he held an unshakeable commitment to family, and when his younger brothers felt threatened Cutter always stepped up. “Are you done winding us up?” he demanded of her. “Because, lady, I don’t care who you are. You need to go now and don’t bother coming back until you’re ready to play fair. Are we clear?”
He figured his words for a reasonable call.
No one came forward and said he was wrong, Mia you’re going to love me included.
Nash headed towards the redhead, herding her towards the open doorway she’d first appeared in.
No one protested.
And when they finally disappeared from view without another word, Cutter picked up the second beer on the counter and downed it whole.
End of Excerpt