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Clair Fletcher eased her rental car onto the shoulder of the deserted country road and came to a stop. She wanted to check the map the rental agency had given her to make sure she was going in the right direction, since it seemed as though she should have reached her destination by now.
She was in Wyoming, headed to some hole-in-the-wall called Elk Creekhardly where she would ordinarily have gone for her vacation. Of course she wouldn't ordinarily have taken a week of her vacation at the beginning of March, either.
But this was not a recreational trip. She was on a quest.
According to the map she was still on course, and Elk Creek was only another four or five miles up the road.
Good, she thought as she refolded the map and tried to ignore the jittery feeling that suddenly hit her stomach. It was the same jittery feeling she got every time she was on her way to a big client to give a presentation. No matter how great her idea for that client's newest ad campaign, she always suffered an attack of nerves right before facing them.
But suffering those jitters wouldn't stop her now any more than the prepresentation jitters stopped her at any other time. Clair Fletcher hadn't become one of Chicago's most recognized advertising account executives by letting things stop her.
She pulled her car back onto the road and pressed the gas pedal with renewed determination.
I'll make things right, Kristin, she sworethe same vow she'd made over and over again since learning that her much younger sister had been killed in an apartment fire.
Clair barely had a basic overview of what had happened to Kristin in the past three years, and even that basic overview had come to her only a few weeks ago. Before that, Clair hadn't so much as known where Kristin was, let alone that her sister had been pregnant when Clair had last seen her. And she hadn't known that Kristin had given the baby up for adoption. Clair felt she had only herself to blame for that alienation.
If Kristin's son's adoptive parentsBill and Kim Millerhadn't been killed in a car accident, Clair would likely never have known about Kristin's death at all. It was only due to the fact that in the Millers' will they'd requested that, in the event of both their deaths, William's birth mother be the first person offered the opportunity to raise him. Apparently acting on behalf of the will's executor, the attorney overseeing the will had dispatched someone to find Kristin, and when that someone had discovered that she, too, was dead, the executor of the will had opted for having Kristin's family notified in case they didn't know.
Notified. That was all. Clair and her father had been notified of Kristin's death as a simple courtesy. It didn't mean her family was left with any rights to her son.
In fact, they might not even have learned she had a son except that the attorney had assumed the family knew and had taken it upon himself to reassure them that arrangements had been made in the will for William's guardianship and that he was being well cared for.
That's where the man Clair was looking for came into the picture.
Clair didn't know much about him other than his name, that he lived in Elk Creek, Wyoming, and that he was now her nephew's legal guardian. But three sudden, untimely deaths were leading her to him. Two accidents, one of which had cost her her sister.
I'm so, so sorry, Kristin. But I promise I'll make things right for your William. I won't leave him to a stranger. I promise .
A sign announced Elk Creek just before Clair slowed down and passed a train station that looked like something out of an old Western movie. White gingerbread trim decorated the gables of the yellow stationhouse as well as the roof that covered the passenger platform.
From there she passed a place that proclaimed itself The Buckin' Bronco, Elk Creek's Only Honky-Tonk. Then she was on Center Street where the Old West theme continued.
Quaint buildings lined both sides of a road so wide there was room for two lanes of traffic and angle parking. Well-kept shops stood along boardwalks dotted with tall Victorian streetlights. Some of the buildings were wood, some brick. None was taller than three stories, and most were only one or two.
Clair's only company on the wide street was one truck and a horse-drawn wagon, both of them moving at about the same slow pace.
It was the kind of town, she thought, where she might spend a holiday weekend browsing through the shops for handcrafted knick-knacks and antiques to escape the workweek rat race.
But this wasn't a holiday weekend, and she wasn't there for pleasure. She had a mission. So when she stopped at the general store she barely noticed the sweet cinnamon scent of the place or the warmth given off by the potbellied stove that chased away the wintry chill outside.
The woman behind the counter smiled at her and said a cheery hello as Clair approached. Clair could tell by the curiosity in the other woman's expression that she knew most people who came through the door and was surprised to see someone she didn't recognize.
Small Town, America, Clair thought, realizing she wasn't impervious to its romanticized appeal and mentally storing the picturesque details of the place. It would come in handy for her next campaign for homemade jam or country lemonade or farm-fresh poultry.
"I'm looking for someone named Jace Brimley," Clair informed the woman behind the counter after returning her greeting. "I don't suppose you could help me with that, could you?"
The woman laughed. "I can't tell you exactly where he is this second, but I can give you the likeliest choices." She went on to recite an address for a house on Maple Street and instructions on how to get there. Then she gave directions to a ranch just outside of town, as well. "I'd try the house first," the other woman suggested when she'd finished.
Clair could tell she was curious about the reason for the inquiry, and she felt the urge to reward the other woman's friendly assistance with an explanation. But this wasn't a subject she wanted to share with a stranger, so instead she merely asked if there was a restroom she could use.
The other woman didn't seem offended by Clair's reluctance to fill her in and pointed out the restroom without so much as a raised eyebrow to show displeasure over the fact that Clair was obviously not going to buy anything.
"Thank you," Clair said, heading down an aisle that offered a surprisingly varied selection of grocery items.
The restroom was a single, small room that could have been the bathroom in any home except for the lack of a shower or tub. It was spotlessly clean, and the liquid soap in a bottle had a hand-lettered label that read Mom's Berry Bright Soap.
It was bright all rightbright purpleand smelled of berries. It was certainly nicer than the industrial-smelling stuff in most public restrooms.
When she'd dried her hands, Clair took a quick check of her appearance in the mirror.
She didn't think she looked too much the worse for wear, considering that it was nearly five o'clock in the afternoon and she'd left for the airport at six that morning. Six Chicago timefour in Wyoming.
For the sake of convenience she kept her naturally curly hair very short, so it required only some fluffing with her fingers to put the bounce back into it. Her hair was a dark, burnished red, a blend of dark brown and red. The trouble was on days like today, when stress and weariness began to show, her usually pale skin seemed almost ghostly against the double-strength hair color.
Since her blush was packed in her suitcase, she opted for pinching her high cheekbones in an attempt to add a little natural color, but she didn't think it helped much.
At least her mascara hadn't runthat was a good thingso her light-green eyes still had some definition. And she did have lipstick in her purse to freshen lips that people had told her had a Cupie-doll curve.
Once she'd done all she could with her face and hair, she glanced down at the gray slacks, white blouse and gray blazer she had on. She flicked a speck of lint from her left sleeve, tugged on the collar of her blouse to straighten it and smoothed the wrinkles that sitting had put in her trousers.
Then, as if she were going to war, she straightened her shoulders and marched out of the restroom.
"I'm Kansas Heller, by the way," the woman behind the counter said as she saw Clair coming.
"Clair Fletcher," Clair responded reflexively.
She wasn't sure how it was possible, but from the look on Kansas Heller's face Clair had the impression that between giving her name and having asked for Jace Brimley earlier, she'd just told the other woman all she needed to know.
It was unsettling to think that the other womanno matter how nicemight be privy to things about her sister or her nephew or their situation that even Clair didn't know. She was almost tempted to ask what was going through the woman's mind or to question her about Jace Brimley, but in the end she just thanked her for the use of the rest-room and returned to her car.
Dusk was falling by then, and the Victorian streetlights had come on, lending a white glow to the dimness.
Clair wondered suddenly if Kansas Heller might call ahead and warn Jace Brimley that she was coming. If he might duck out rather than wait for her.
But she rejected the idea. After all, he had every legal right on his side. Why should he bolt?
The jitters got worse, anyway, though, and she felt an increased urgency to find him. So she backed out of the parking spot in a hurry and drove faster than she probably should have up Center Street in the direction she'd been told to go.
It didn't take long to reach the keyhole Kansas Heller had described at the northernmost end of Center Street where a redbrick building and a steepled church stood. Clair rounded the town square nestled within the keyhole and turned on Maple Street where she counted houses until she reached the fifth from the corner, a small two-level salt-box painted beige, shuttered in cocoa brown, with a big front porch where a swing hung by chains at one end.
There was a light on in the picture window at one side of the oversize front door. The top half of the front door was an oval of etched glass, and some light shone through that, too, encouraging Clair to stop, since it looked as if someone was there.
Once she was parked at the curb, she got out and locked her doors before approaching the place.
She climbed the four steps to the front porch, breathing deeply to calm those persistent jitters, and rang the doorbell. It chimed loudly enough for her to hear even outside as she tried to peek through the etched glass in the door for a preview of the man she'd come to see. But the design of flowers and leaves was so intricate that she couldn't make out anything but colors and distorted shapes.
She did, however, see movement a moment after the doorbell had sounded.
And then, without so much as a Who's there? the door opened, and on the other side was a mountain of a man.
Clair's earlier thought about him bolting became instantly ludicrous. Her bet was that this was not a man who had ever run from anything.
And why should he? His size alone made him an imposing figure.
He stood there, at least an inch over six feet tall, on legs as thick and sturdy as tree trunks. His broad chest tapered to a waist and hips that were shaped by taut, lean muscle. His shoulders were wide. His biceps bulged enough to stretch out the short sleeves of the white T-shirt he wore. And if just the sight of his body wasn't enough to tie Clair's tongue, one glimpse of his face was.
He had a look that advertisers would clamor forsharply defined jawline; sensuous lips with a devilish quirk to the corners; a straight patrician nose; deep-set, penetrating eyes the same blue-denim color as the low-slung, faded jeans he wore; full brows; and light brown hair the shade of golden oak, close-cropped to a head that was perfectly shaped.
"Can I help you?" he asked when she still hadn't found her voice. His was a lush baritonekind, curious and confident.
But before she could answer him, a tiny boy ran up from behind him, grabbed one of his massive thighs as if it were a pole and swung around it to land on his foot with a joyous giggle.
"I tace you!"
The big, strapping, handsome man looked down at the little boy dressed almost identically except that the T-shirt the boy was wearing was red-striped and long-sleeved. Then he bent over, lifted the child as if he weighed no more than a small sack of rice and hoisted him to his shoulders to straddle his neck.
"I know you chased me," the big man said, hanging onto the boy's knees as if they were sweater sleeves dangling over his shoulders.
Then the man turned his attention back to Clair, waiting expectantly for an answer to his question.
"I'm looking for Jace Brimley."
"That'd be me," he said without hesitation and also without any indication that he'd been warned of her imminent arrival.
But Clair hardly heard him as her gaze locked on the little boy.
She'd been ten years old when Kristin was born, so she had vivid memories of her sister as a child. And the little boy was the spitting image of Kristin at that same age. Dark-green eyes, carrot-red hair that stuck out in an unruly brush all around his head, chubby cheeks, a turned-up nose and a deep dimple just above the left side of the same Cupie-doll mouth Clair had.
Sudden tears flooded her eyes and caught in her throat as she saw her late sister in the little boy. As she realized that he was flesh and bloodher flesh and blood. As he became real to her suddenly.
But she was still standing on Jace Brim-ley's porch, beneath the scrutiny of those denim-blue eyes, and she knew she had to say something. So she blinked away the tears, swallowed hard and said, "I'm Clair Fletcher. Kristin Fletcher was my sister."
"Ah," he said, nodding his head and dispelling any doubts she might have had that he wouldn't know who her sister had been. Who she was. "Come on in," he invited then, as casually as if she'd come to check out a piano he had for sale. Certainly he wasn't unnerved at all by her appearance at his door.
He stepped out of the way to allow her access, and Clair went in.
It was a cozy house. The entryway was small, with stairs straight ahead and a choice of going right into the living room or left into what appeared to be a den.
She didn't choose. She merely waited for her host to let her know where to go from there, wondering if he might leave her standing in the foyer rather than offer more comfortable surroundings.
"Hang on a minute," the big man said amiably enough as he closed the front door, flipped on a light in the den and took his charge into the other room.
"Changed my mind, Willy. You can watch the Barney DVD now, before supper."