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It was the yelling that got her attention.
Murphy. It was so easy to recognize his voice. Particularly when he was yelling at a few million decibels.
Her stomach sinking like a lead balloon, Isabella Lock-hart instantly dropped her cleaning rag on the lunch counter at Ruby's Cafe and raced for the door.
Of course it was locked. She'd locked it herself just thirty minutes earlier. She darted back for the keys that Tabby Taggart had entrusted her with, finally spotting them on the stainless-steel work counter in the kitchen, where she'd left them after locking up the rear door.
She rushed back to the front entrance, fumbled with the lock, then burst out the glass door. Not only had the yelling continued, it was angrier than ever.
And it was all occurring smack-dab in the middle of Main Street, right there in front of the cafe, where a large, dusty blue pickup truck was parked.
Murphy, please don't get into more trouble.
The whispered prayer was much, much too familiar. Moving here to Weaver had been supposed to change that.
She ran toward the truck, toward the yelling, then nearly skidded to a halt at the sight of the thin boy glaring up at a tall, broad man who was glaring right back at him.
What concerned her most, however, was the baseball bat clenched in Murphy's white-knuckled fists. If he took the bat to one more thing
She couldn't bear to think about it.
"You damn well did know what you were doing!" The man's deep voice was furious.
"It was an accident!" Murphy yelled back. "I told you that a hunnert times!"
"Murphy!" Isabella dashed between the two males, grabbing the bat as Murphy raised it. At eleven, he already topped five feet, and only the fact that she was wearing a bit of a wedge heel kept his eyes from being at a level with her own. She tugged on the bat hard, pressing her hand flat against his heaving chest, but his grip was equally tight. "Let it go!"
His mutinous brown eyesso like his father's that at first it had been a physical ache to see them each and every daymet hers and his knuckles turned even whiter around the wood. "No!"
She heard the man behind her mutter something, and then a large, tanned hand closed over the bat just above hers. "Give me that damn thing before you hurt someone," the man snapped, and yanked it directly out of both her and Murphy's battling grips. Then he tossed it into the cab of his truck and slammed the door shut.
Murphy's voice went up half an octave as he unleashed a fresh round of curses that made her pale. "Dude! That's my bat. You can't just take my bat!"
"I just did, dude," the man returned flatly. He closed his hand over Murphy's thin shoulder and forcibly moved him away from Isabella. "Stay," he spit.
Isabella rounded on the man, gaping at him. He was wearing a faded brown ball cap and aviator sunglasses that hid his eyes. "Take your hand off him!" Whatever the cause of Murphy's latest altercation, this man had no right to put a hand on him. "Who do you think you are?"
"The man your boy took aim at with his blasted baseball." His jaw was sharp and shadowed by brown stubble and his lips were thinned.
"I did not!" Murphy shouted, right into Isabella's ear.
She winced, giving him a fierce look. "Go sit down." She pointed at the wooden bench on the sidewalk in front of the cafe. Her head was pounding and she had to control her own urge to add to the screaming.
Whatever had made her think she could be a parent to Murphy? He needed a man around, not just a woman he could barely tolerate.
He needed his father.
And now all they had was each other.
She pointed. "Go."
All gangling arms and legs and outraged male, Murphy jerked his shoulder out from the man's grip and stomped over to the bench, throwing himself down on it.
She pulled her gaze away from Murphy and looked up at the man. "I don't know what happened here"
"Don't you have any sense at all, stepping in front of him when he's waving around a baseball bat?"
Isabella clamped down on her own temper. Whatever Murphy had done, it wouldn't help for her to lose her own cool. "Murphy would never hurt me," she said evenly, ignoring the snort the man gave in response.
She drew in a calming breath and turned her head into the breeze that she'd begun to suspect never died here in Weaver, Wyoming. She let it cool her face before she turned to face him again. "I'm Isabella Lockhart," she began.
"I know who you are."
She pressed her lips together for a moment. She'd only been in Weaver a few weeks, but it really was a small town if people she'd never met already knew who she was. Lucy had told herwarned her, reallyabout how different Weaver was from New York. That was why Isabella had hopedstill didthat the radical change might be the solution to her problems with Murphy. As long as she was able to hold on to him.
She focused on the man's facewhat she could see of it beneath the hat and sunglasses, at any rate. "I'm sure we can resolve whatever's happened here," she continued in the same appeasing tone she'd once used to great effect with outraged prima ballerinas, "but could we do it somewhere other than the middle of Main Street, Mr., uh"
"Erik Clay. Since there's no traffic to speak of, I don't know what you're worried about. But I am mighty curious how you think we're going to resolve that" He jerked his chin toward the bed of his truck.
He wasn't known for having much of a temper, but considering everything, Erik felt like retrieving that baseball bat and bashing something with it himself.
Focusing on the woman in front of him was a lot safer than focusing on the skinny, black-haired hellion sprawled on Ruby's bench.
She tucked her white-blond hair behind her ear with a visibly shaking hand. Bleached blond, he figured, considering her eyes were such a dark brown they were nearly black. It didn't seem natural that anyone with such light hair would have such dark eyes. He'd never much understood the bleached-hair deal. But even pissed as he was, he wasn't blind to the whole effect.
Weaver's newcomer was a serious looker.
"I'm sorry," she was saying. "Whatever happened, I'm sure I can make it right."
"Really?" He very nearly took her arm, but the way she'd squawked over him pushing the kid away from her kept him from doing so. Instead, he held out his hand in obvious invitation toward the truck bed. "Care to tell me how?"
Her brown-black gaze flicked over him. Her unease was as plain as the pert nose on her pretty face when she stepped over to the truck bed, which was nearly as tall as she was, and peered over the side. "Oh sugar," she whispered.
The words he had for the damage were a lot less sweet than sugar. But sharing them held no appeal, considering the foul mouth her kid had already exhibited.
He reached down and plucked a baseball from amid the shards of colored glass that had once been a very large, very elaborate stained-glass window destined for the Weaver Community Church. "Your boy threw the ball deliberately."
"I did not!" Murphy screeched as he launched himself back into Erik's face. "And I ain't her" he dropped an f-bomb as if it were a regular component of his vocabulary "boy!"
Erik shot out a hand, halting the kid's progress even as he scooped the woman out of the kid's angry path.
"Murphy!" She wriggled out of Erik's grip and grabbed the boy's arm, physically dragging him back to the bench. "I told you to sit." She leaned over and said something under her breath that Erik couldn't make out, but that obviously had some effect, because the kid angrily sank against the bench and crossed his arms defensively over his chest.
The woman tugged at the pink skirt of her waitress uniform as she straightened. Erik quickly directed his gaze upward from her shapely rear when she turned and walked back to him.
She stepped up to the side of the truck and peered over the edge once more. "It looks valuable."
The window depicting the Weaver landscape had been a gift. An unexpected, completely unwanted gift. And it was probably wrong of him, but Erik calculated the value more in terms of personal discomfort than dollars, since the artist was a woman he was no longer seeing. And who'd likely tell him to pound sand when he approached her for a replacement, which he'd have to do, since he'd gone and donated the thing to the church, seeing how churches were more suited for that sort of thing than his plain old ranch house. Now they were expecting the thing. "It was."
Her slender shoulders rose and fell in a sigh that only served to make the curves filling out her uniform even more noticeable. Her gaze lifted to his. "If you could tell me how much the damage is, I'll figure out a way to pay you."
Erik looked away from those near-black eyes that were so full of earnestness he couldn't help but feel his anger lessening. And that just irritated him all over again. "Fou didn't throw the ball at my window. He did." He gestured toward the kid. "In my day, we pulled stunts like that, it earned us a trip to the sheriff's office."
She was fair-skinned to begin with, but he actually saw color drain right out of her face. Without seeming to realize it, she closed her hands over his arm, as if to prevent him from heading toward the sheriff's office right then and there. "Please. Not the police."
"Tell me why I shouldn't."
"He didn't mean to cause any harm."
Erik snorted, though it was a shame for such dark, pretty eyes to show so much panic. "Really? He wound up his arm and aimed straight for my truck. I saw it with my own eyes."
"He's just a boy. Didn't you ever make a mistake when you were a boy?"
Heat was running up his arm, starting exactly where her fingers were digging into it. But it was her expression of sheer panic that had him sighing. That and the fact that he could remember a few ill-considered stunts from his youth.
"Relax." He eyed the boy, who gave him a sullen look in return. "He can work off the damages." Maybe that was to be his penance. Break the heart of a perfectly nice woman who'd saddled you with a stained-glass window you never wanted in the first place. In return, get saddled with a demon kid. "Out at my place."
Isabella showed no signs of relaxing, however. "Your place?" Her eyebrowsconsiderably darker than her whitish hairshot up her smooth forehead as she visibly bristled. "What sort of thing are you suggesting?"
His irritation ratcheted up a notch again. "Honey, this isn't a big city filled with perverts. I have a ranch. The Rocking-C. The kid can do chores for me there."
"The kid has a name."
Why did Erik feel as if he was in the wrong here? He wasn't the one who'd willfully destroyed a piece of artwork worth thousands of dollars. "Murphy can shovel manure and haul hay and clean stalls. I figure every Saturday morning until the end of summer oughta do it." It wouldn't come close, but he wasn't saddling his peaceful existence with a delinquent for any longer than necessary.
"No way." Murphy shot to his feet. "I'm not wasting Saturdays with him."
Isabella wanted to tear out her hair. She pointed at the bench again. "Sit. I mean it, Murphy." She waited until he'd done so before looking back up at the man. "Mr. Clay, I"
"No need for the mister, honey. Just Erik'll do."
"Fine." He undoubtedly called every female he encountered honey. She felt she ought to find it derogatory or something. She hadn't particularly loved being called babe, after all, even though she'd loved the man who'd called her that.
She blamed her scattered thoughts on too little sleep and too many months of worry. "I appreciate your willingness to work with me on this. Really appreciate it." He would never know how imperative it was that Murphy have no more brushes with the law. "But we don't even know you." She felt pretty certain that pervertsto use his wordweren't strictly the domain of large cities. "Small-town folk or not, I just can't send Murphy off with a complete str"
"Talk to Lucy," he suggested. He didn't look amused. Exactly. But his tight jaw had relaxed just a little. It was still sharply angled, coming to a point with a whisper of a cleft in his chin. "She'll vouch for me," he added.
"Lucy Ventura?" She folded her arms, giving him a considering look. He was tall. Taller even than Jimmy had been, and he'd been six-three. This man was also broader in the shoulders, whichalong with his chin or anything else about himwasn't anything she ought to be noticing. Jimmy had only been gone for nine months. "You know her?"
"You could say that. She's my cousin."
"Oh." She dropped her arms and pushed her hair away from her face. Knowing that he was related to Lucy made her feel some hope that the situation could be redeemed. Not only had she and Lucy worked together in New York, they'd also been roommates for a time.
But that had all happened before Jimmy Bartholomew blew into Isabella's life.
"Here." Erik handed her the dirt-smudged baseball. It was clearly Murphy's. She recognized his scrawled signature on it that he'd added when Jimmy had given it to him. Pretending to be a big-league player, or just marking his own territory among his hoodlum friends. Whatever his reasons had been, there was no way Murphy could deny it was his ball.
She took it, rubbing her thumb over the stitching. She remembered the day Jimmy had given it to Murphy as if it had been yesterday.
Despair threatened to roll over her.
For her, Jimmy had been a whirlwind. Sweeping her off her feet one minute with buckets of flowers and outrageous displays, and proposing the next in front of his entire fire-house. But they'd never made it to a wedding.
It wasn't even three months from the moment they'd met until she and Jimmy's son were standing beside his grave.
She looked over at Murphy. When his father died, Murphy lost everyone he had.
Now he only had her because of the tenuous approval she'd received from a family court judge that placed him provisionally under her guardianship.
"Thank you," she whispered huskily. She held up the baseball between her fingers. "The ball means a lot to Murphy."
She could see Erik's jaw tighten again. "Then he shouldn't be tossing it at passing vehicles."
Another thing she could blame herself for. She'd been the one to send Murphy outside in the first place, thinking she could finish closing up the diner more quickly without him inside and underfoot, constantly complaining that he wanted to go home.
She wanted to believe that Murphy hadn't done it on purpose. But experience had taught her to be wary.