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Hidden behind the safe harbor of a tree, Audrey Stone studied the men invading her land and knew that bringing the handcuffs had been smart.
She'd parked her Mini on the shoulder down the road out of sight. No sense warning these guys she was coming.
Trees appeared like ghostly Ents out of the morning mist that rose from low-lying patches of land. She had no problem with fantasy. The thought of talking trees appealed to her. She talked to her plants, didn't she? She believed they listened.
The construction workers had already unloaded their massive yellow equipment. Wary, she inched between a bulldozer and an earthmover, her pulse pounding like a jackhammer, her steps muffled by damp early-morning August earth.
When she saw the digging bucket of a backhoe, its horizontal stabilizers already deployed, hovering dangerously close to the fragile glass roof of one of her greenhouses, she swore. Oh, her babies. What if Noah hadn't noticed these men on his way into town and called her? They would have destroyed her work without her knowledge. All of it down the tubes with the casual flick of a machine's lever.
Thank God she'd arrived in time.
She ignored her racing heartbeat and scooted through the busy workers until she reached the front door.
Someone shouted, "Hey, you! What are you doing?"
Protecting my livelihood.
She snapped one end of the handcuffs to the door handle then locked the other around her wrist. A split second later a hand landed on her shoulder.
A man spun her aboutthe foreman, maybe?and frowned when he saw what she'd done. "What the hell's going on?"
She had no doubt who was behind this. She should almost have seen it coming. She tried not to think of Gray, though, and the sorrow he engendered in her.
"Unlock yourself and get the hell out of here," the construction worker ordered, pugnacious in his anger.
"Gimme the keys." He waggled his fingers. Considering that they were on the end of a very muscled arm, she almost gave in.
"No," she said again, glancing through the window of the greenhouse, gaining strength from her seedlings, her future.
"Call Grayson Turner," she said, infusing her voice with as much authority as she could muster.
The construction worker scratched his head and pulled out a cell phone.
A second later, he said, "Boss, you gotta get out here. We have a nutcase who's locked herself to one of the greenhouses."
Audrey bristled at the characterization of her as a nutcase. She differed a littleokay, a lotfrom the average woman, but she wasn't crazy. Just worried. Scared. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
If she were lucky, her plants hadn't been traumatized by the offloading of the heavy equipment so close to home. She had only four more weeks to nurture them to perfection, and now this. She'd almost lost them because one man couldn't be bothered to check his family's records.
Grayson Turner could have everything else on earth, but not this little piece of paradise. Audrey needed it, wanted it and owned it. Period.
Her slice of land might be modest by most standards, but pride of ownership blazed through her.
While the worker reported to Gray on the phone, Audrey's gaze shifted to her fields, to the dewy promise of life in the burgeoning grasses surrounding her. If love were visible, had a color, it would be green. She loved this land.
She breathed deeply of air scented with the damp freshness of morning dew. How ironic that the man who'd inspired her love of nature and the outdoors should be the one who could destroy her.
The foreman hung up, crossed his muscled arms over his chest and stared her down, as though he could change her actions by the force of his willpower.
Not a chance.
No beefy construction worker, or backhoe or business mogul would stop her from protecting her babies, even if said businessman did hold the key to a corner of her heart she'd locked away nearly thirty years ago.
Be still, my hammering heart. He's only a boy you used to know. He has no power over you.
Even so, she held her breath while she waited for Gray. She knew from experience that trouble wouldn't be far behind.
Grayson Turner raced his father's Volvo along the back road that bordered his parents' land outside of Accord, Colorado, biting down on his frustration. What now?
He'd been back home only three months, and already his stress level was through the roof. He still remembered that disturbing call from Dad's office manager.
"He's slowing down, Gray," Hilary had said. "He comes in only two, three hours a day. He's not here long enough to make decisions that need to be made." Shocking, considering that Dad used to practically live there, putting in twelve- and thirteen-hour days when Gray was growing up.
"The decisions he's making are hurting the company," Hilary had continued. "You need to take care of this."
Hilary had worked for Dad for thirty years and knew Turner Lumber inside out. If she said Gray needed to be here, then he needed to be here.
So he'd come home. He should have done so years ago, but Marnie No, he couldn't go there.
His attempts at dragging the family business into the twenty-first century were being scuttled at every turn, mainly by Dad. Gray had an agricultural conglomerate lined up and was ready to hand over a boatload of money to him for the land, a decision with which Dad had agreed, and what should have been a straightforward mission to tear down the old greenhouses on the property was being held up.
Who would lock themselves to a Turner greenhouse? What had Dad done? Offended a tree hugger? Eaten a piece of meat?
Joking aside, what had his father done? Anything was possible these days.
Cool it, Gray. It could just as easily be a squatter. Dad doesn't have to be blamed for everything.
Leaving a trail of dust in his wake, Gray shot down the dirt driveway and pulled up in front of the largest greenhouse, barely registering the idle workers and the one woman leaning against the front of the building.
He opened his door and set a foot onto the ground. Darkness. Suffocation. Clawing panic.
Not this again. He shook his head to free himself of the debilitating feelings. He had work to do and no time to figure out what the hell was wrong with him, and what it had to do with Accord.
The car accident had happened in Boston, so why was it affecting him more in his hometown than it had in his adopted city?
He swiped the back of his hand across his sweaty brow and took control of his unruly, nameless fears, got out of the car, and there he was, feet on terra firma, on Turner land, and disaster hadn't struck to warrant the panic. All of that worry for nothing.
Time to deal with the nutcase his foreman had called about.
Silhouetted against the building, her posture dramatic, one arm chained to the door and the other spread across the glass as though one of the workers were threatening her with a sledgehammer, stood a full-figured woman who looked like she'd stepped out of an old movie set.
It took him a moment to recognize her, to remember her from high school.
That darkness, that suffocating panic, slammed into his chest with the force of a wrecking ball. He reached to loosen his tie so he could catch an ounce of oxygen, a fragment of air, anything to stop the dizziness and nausea.
What the hell did the accident have to do with this woman? He hadn't seen Audrey in years. He'd never had a relationship with her. They'd never dated, had never been friends.
Audrey didn't look a thing like Marnie, and in fact was Marnie's antithesis. Marnie would never have done something this rash. This emotional. So why did Audrey bring up this crippling hangover from the accident?
He undid the top button of his shirt and sucked in a deep breath.
Ramming his shaking hands into his pants pockets, he studied the woman chained to his greenhouse and forced himself to rise above his distress to view her objectively. Studying her would give him a minute to collect himself.
He'd avoided her in high school. Looked like he wasn't going to be able to now.
Audrey had changed. She'd been strange back then, in Doc Martens, studded dog collars and spiky black hair, but she'd traded it all in for a more sophisticated weirdness. She wore a suita cropped jacket and skirt, and looked like something out of a sixties society photo, Mrs. SLunching with Friends.
He stepped closer. Fireengine-red lipstick that matched a ridiculous little hat perched on her head defined a sinfully full mouth. Black eyeliner framed violet eyes. A cap of black curls surrounded a pale face.
Jackie O meets Betty Boop.
Gray knew both characters well. Mom had a lifelong obsession with Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and Dad loved old cartoons, but come on, these days who dressed like an uppercrust fifties or sixties housewife out on the town?
As had happened in high school, his feelings about Audrey couldn't be clearly definedsometimes anger, sometimes confusion, often panic. They flummoxed him and made him a little crazy. He was a good judge of character, but who was Audrey, really, and why did he feel so strange around her?
And why did she bring up these memories of the accident?
Why would who she was even matter to him? It wasn't as if she was anything more than another of the town's citizens, a satellite floating around the edges of his world.
Calmer now, he stopped in front of her. If his stance was aggressive, so be it. He was in no mood to beat around the bush. "What are you doing?"
"Protecting my property." Her body might have Betty Boop's curves, but her voice had none of her squeaky breathlessness. No-nonsense and down-to-earth, it had an intriguing depth.
"You've got stuff in our greenhouses?" So this situation wasn't Dad's fault. Audrey was nothing more than a garden snake variety of trespasser. Harmless. "That's squatting."
He turned to his foreman. "Cut off the handcuffs. Escort her from the property."
"This land belongs to me." For a short woman, she had a big voice. Must be those wellendowed lungs. "If any of you puts a hand on me, I'll call the police and have you charged with both assault and trespassing. Get off my land now."
Gray stilled. "Your land? What are you talking about?" His foreman was right. She was a nutcase.
With her free hand, she reached into a boxy white purse hanging from her handcuffed wrist and pulled out a paper, the nerves underneath her defiance betrayed by the wavering of her hand.
He snatched it, read it and stopped breathing. A photocopy of the sale of a swath of land to her, it looked legit.
Impossible. The air around him became thin. Man, he was getting tired of being dizzy.
Dad, you didn't
You couldn't have
Dad had sold a piece of their land to Audrey Stone in Gray checked the date January, seven months ago, and not a corner plot, or a slice of land from one of the boundaries, but a chunk right in the blasted middle of the land Gray wanted to sell. Correction, needed to sell.
His jaw hurt with the struggle to maintain control, to keep the panic at bay. "How did you get this out of my father? What did you do, threaten him or blackmail him with something?"
"I asked him. Politely. He said yes. It's legal."
"We'll see about that." He strode away and whipped out his cell. Dad's lawyer answered on the second ring, none too pleased to be disturbed at breakfast. Too bad. This needed to be handled. Two minutes later, Gray had an appointment to see the man in his office this morning.
He hung up and gestured to the construction crew. "Clear out. Remove the machinery."
If this sale was legitimate, they were trespassing.
They grumbled but obeyed. Today's debacle was going to cost Gray a bundle. If the sale of land to Audrey had been fraudulent in any way, Gray would sue for damages.
He turned to the woman unlocking herself from the greenhouse door. If he were a violent man, he'd knock her ridiculous red hat from her head.
"This isn't over."
"Yes, Gray, it is." She'd just won a battle and should have looked triumphant. Her solemn frown, though, didn't reflect victory.
The few times he'd run into her over the years, he'd gotten the feeling she knew something he didn't. What? Her knowledge, and his ignorance of it, angered him, made him want to lash out. She was nothing more than a resident in the town he'd grown up in, so why this sense of drama, of history?
He jumped into his car to drive home, to find out from Dad what kind of whim or idiocy had led him to sell a valuable portion of their land, but not at all sure he'd get an answer that would satisfy him. Dad had always been too softhearted, and was growing worse with age.
When Gray realized he was counting telephone poles, he pulled onto the shoulder, put the car into Park and reached into the glove compartment. Counting, for God's sake. In the months since he'd returned to Accord, he'd started counting everything, from how many times he chewed his food before he swallowed to the number of steps between his bedroom and the bathroom. Wasn't that a sign of OCD personality or something? He'd never done it in his life before. Moving back home had screwed him up. He loved Accord. He'd had a good, solid childhood, so why did returning give him the heebie-jeebies?
Granted, he hadn't been himself since last year's accident, but he'd been recovering. So, why had coming home left him reeling? Why had it brought all of those bad associations, which had finally been healing, back into play? Moving away from Boston, away from the scene of the accident, should have made him better. So, why had coming here made him worse?
He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, cursing when his hands shook. After lighting one, he blew smoke out the open window. Before last year, he'd never smoked.
Times had changed.
While he smoked, he struggled for equilibrium.
Rather than calming him, the nicotine riled himand that pissed him off. He had to stay calm. Turner Enterprises needed a strong hand at the helm. Obviously, Dad was no longer up to the task. He 'd sold that piece of land. Sheer lunacy. That strong hand would have to be Gray's, but for the first time in his career, he was afraid he wasn't up to the job.
The cigarette tasted like crap and was making him nauseous. Not surprising, given that he'd run out the door before having breakfast. He flicked the butt onto the road.
Pull yourself together, Turner.
Before he knew it, he was lighting up a second cancer stick. It tasted as bad as the first. He tossed it out the window, too, and crushed the pack of remaining cigarettes in his fist. He needed to pick up gum or something. Inhaling tobacco was a dumb idea. Weak. Spineless.
He drummed his fingers on the window well. The scent of pine and cedar from the woods lining the road drifted in on a breeze and blew the smoke out of the car.
He started the engine, pulled a U-turn and returned to the greenhouses to have it out with Audrey. Better to push his anger on her than on his aging father.