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"You weren't at the funeral," Slade Barlow's half brother, Hutch Carmody, accused, the words rasping against the underside of a long, slow exhale.
Slade didn't look at Hutch, though he could still see him out of the corner of one eye. The both of them were sitting side by side in a pair of uncomfortable chairs, facing what seemed like an acre of desk. Maggie Landers, their father's lawyer, who had summoned them there, had yet to put in an appearance.
"I went to the graveside service," Slade replied evenly, and after a considerable length. It was the truth, though he'd stood at some distance from the crowd, not wanting to be numbered among the admitted mourners but unable to stay away entirely.
"Why bother at all?" Hutch challenged. "Unless you just wanted to make sure the old man was really in the box?"
Slade was not a quick-tempered manby nature, he tended to think before he spoke and offer whatever response he might make with quiet deliberation, traits that had served him well over the several years since he'd been elected sheriffbut the edge in his half brother's tone brought heat surging up his neck to pound behind his ears.
"Maybe that was it," he drawled with quiet contempt as the office door whispered open behind them.
Hutch, who had just shoved back his chair as if to leap to his feet, ready to fight, thrust a hand hard through his shock of brownish-blond hair instead, probably to discharge that rush of adrenaline, and stayed put. He all but buzzed, like an electric fence line short-circuiting in a thunderstorm.
Slade, though still confounded by his own invitation to this particular shindig, took a certain grim satisfaction in Hutch's reaction. There was, as the old saying went, no love lost between the two of them.
"Good to see you haven't killed each other," Maggie observed brightly, rounding the shining expanse of the desk to take the leather chair behind it. Still gorgeous at fifty-plus, with short, expertly dyed brown hair and round green eyes, usually alight with mischievous intelligence, the lawyer turned slightly to boot up her computer.
"Not just yet, anyhow," Hutch replied finally.
Maggie's profile was all he could see of her, but Slade registered the slight smile that tilted up one corner of her mouth. Her fingers, perfectly manicured every Saturday morning at his mother's beauty shop for the last quarter of a century, flicked busily over the keyboard, and the monitor threw a wash of pale blue light onto her face and the lightweight jacket of her custom-made off-white pantsuit.
"How's your mother, Slade?" she asked mildly without glancing his way.
Maggie and his mom, Callie, were around the same age, and they'd been friends for as long as Slade could remember. Given that he'd run into Maggie at his mom's Curly-Burly Hair Salon just the day before, where she'd been having a trim and a touch-up, he figured the question was a rhetorical one, a sort of conversational filler.
"She's fine," Slade said. By then, he'd gotten over the urge to commit fratricide and gone back to mulling the thing that had been bothering him ever since the formidable Ms. Landers had called him at home that morning and asked him to stop by her office on his way to work.
The meeting had to be about the old man's last will and testament, though Maggie hadn't said so over the phone. All she'd been willing to give up was, "This won't take long, Slade, and believe me, it's in your best interests to be there."
Hutch's presence made sense, since he was the legitimate son, the golden boy, groomed since birth to become the master of all he surveyed even as, motherless from the age of twelve, he ran wild. Slade himself, on the other hand, was the outsiderborn on the proverbial wrong side of the blanket.
John Carmody had never once acknowledged him, in all Slade's thirty-five years of life, and it wasn't likely that he'd had a deathbed change of heart and altered his will to include the product of his long-ago affair with Callie.
No, Slade thought, Carmody hadn't had a heart, not where he and his mother were concerned, anyway. He'd never so much as spoken to Slade in all those years; looked right through him, when they did come into contact, as if he was invisible. If that stiff-necked son of a bitch had instructed Maggie to make sure Slade was there for the reading of the will, it was probably so he'd know what he was missing out on, when all that land and money went to Hutch.
You can stick it all where the sun never shines, old man, Slade thought angrily. He'd never expectedor wantedto inherit a damn thing from John Carmodybad enough that he'd gotten the bastard's looks, his dark hair, lean and muscular build, and blue eyesand it galled him that Maggie, his mother's friend, would be a party to wasting his time like this.
Maggie clicked the mouse, and her printer began spewing sheets of paper as she turned to face Hutch and Slade head-on.
"I'll spare you all the legal jargon," she said, gathering the papers from the printer tray, separating them into two piles and shoving these across the top of her desk, one set for each of them. "All the facts are thereyou can read the wills over at your leisure."
Slade barely glanced at the documents and made no move to pick them up.
"And what facts are those?" Hutch snapped, peevish.
Pecker-head, Slade thought.
Maggie interlaced her fingers and smiled benignly. It took more than a smart-ass cowboy to get under her hide. "The estate is to be divided equally between the two of you," she announced.
Stunned, Slade simply sat there, as breathless as if he'd just taken a sucker punch to the gut. A single thought hummed in his head, like a trapped moth trying to find a way out.
What the hell?
Hutch, no doubt just as shocked as Slade was, if not more so, leaned forward and growled, "What did you say?"
"You heard me the first time, Hutch," Maggie said, unruffled. She might have looked like a gracefully aging pixie, but she regularly chewed up the best prosecutors in the state and spit them out like husks of sunflower seeds.
Slade said nothing. He was still trying to process the news.
"Bullshit," Hutch muttered. "This is bullshit.''''
Maggie sighed. "Nevertheless," she said, "it's what Mr. Carmody wanted. He was my client, and it's my job to see that his final wishes are honored to the letter. After all, Whisper Creek belonged to him, and he had every right to dispose of his estate however he saw fit."
Slade finally recovered enough equanimity to speak, though his voice came out sounding hoarse. "What if I told you I didn't want anything?" he demanded.
"If you told me that," Maggie responded smoothly, "I'd say you were out of your mind, Slade Barlow. We're talking about a great deal of money here, in addition to a very profitable ranching operation and all that goes with it, including buildings and livestock and mineral rights."
Another silence descended, short and dangerous, pulsing with heat.
Hutch was the one to break it. "When did Dad change his will?" he asked.
"He didn't change it," Maggie said without hesitation. "Mr. Carmody had the papers drawn up years ago, when my father and grandfather were still with the firm, and he personally reviewed them six months ago, after he got the diagnosis. This is what he wanted, Hutch."
Hutch snapped up his copy of the document and got to his feet. Slade rose, too, but he left the papers where they were. None of this seemed real to himhe was probably dreaming. Any moment now, he'd wake up in a cold sweat and a tangle of sheets, in his lonely, rumpled bed over at the duplex where he'd been living since he came back to Parable ten years ago, after college, a stint in the military and a brief marriage followed by a mostly amicable divorce.
"I'll be damned," Hutch muttered, his voice like sandpaper. He was dressed for ranch work, in old jeans, a blue cotton shirt and a pair of well-worn boots, which probably meant he'd had no more notice about this meeting than Slade had.
"Thanks, Maggie," Slade heard himself say as he turned to leave.
He wasn't grateful; he'd spoken out of habit.
She got up from her chair, rounded the desk and pursued him, forcing the printout of his father's will into his hands. "At least read it," she said. "I'll set up another meeting in a few days, when you've both had time to absorb everything."
Slade didn't answer, but he accepted the paperwork, felt it crumple in his grasp as his fingers tightened re-flexively around it.
Moments later, as Slade opened the door of his truck, Hutch was beside him again.
"I'll buy your half of the ranch," he said, grinding out the offer. "I don't give a rat's ass about the moneyI've got plenty of that anywaybut Whisper Creek has been in my family for almost a hundred years, and my great-great-grandfather built the original house and barn with his own hands. The place ought to belong to me outright."
The emphasis on the phrase my family was subtle, but it was an unmistakable line in the sand.
Slade met his half brother's fierce gaze. Reached in to take his hat off the passenger seat where he'd left it earlier, resting on its crown, before heading into Maggie's office. "I'll need to give that some thought," he said.
With a visible effort, Hutch unclamped the hinges of his jaws. "What's there to think about?" he asked, after another crackling pause. "I'll pay cash, Barlow. Name your price."
Name your price. Slade knew he ought to accept the deal, and just be glad John Carmody had seen fit to claim him, albeit posthumously. All he had to do was say yes, and he could buy that little spread he'd had his eye on for the past couple of years, pay cash for it, instead of depleting his savings for the down payment. But something prevented him from agreeing, something that ran deeper than his utter inability to act on impulse.
Indirectly, John Carmody had, at long last, acknowledged his existence. He needed to be with that knowledge for a while, work out what it meant, if anything.
"I'll get back to you," Slade finally reiterated, climbing up behind the wheel of his truck and putting on his hat. "In the meantime, I've got a county to look after."
With that, he shut the truck door.
Hutch thumped the metal hard with the heel of one palm, then turned and stormed away, rounded the hood of the Whisper Creek pickup, yanked open the door and jumped into the driver's seat.
Slade watched as the other man ground the engine to life, shoved it into Reverse and threw some gravel in the process. He was all sound and fury, though. Half again too smart to actually break the speed limit with the sheriff looking on.
With a wry twist to his mouth, Slade waited a few moments, started his own rig and pulled onto the narrow side street. He was supposed to be in his office over at the courthouse, assigning his day shift deputies to patrol various parts of the county, but he headed for the highway instead. Five minutes later, he pulled up in front of his mother's place, an old trailer with rust-speckled aluminum skirting and a plywood addition that served as living quarters.
As a kid, Slade had been about half-ashamed of that jumble of metal and wood, jerry-rigged together the way it was, lacking only waist-high weeds, a few rattletrap cars up on blocks and household appliances on the porch to qualify as out-and-out redneck. Callie nagged him into power-washing the two-toned walls of the trailerthe part that housed the shopat least twice a year, and he painted the rest of it regularly, too.
This week, all the words on the dusty reader-board at the edge of the gravel parking lot were even spelled correctly. Acrylic nails, half price. Highlights/perms, ten percent off.
Slade smiled as he shut off the truck and got out.
The shop didn't open for business until ten o'clock, but Callie already had the lights on, and, most likely, the big coffeepot was chugging away, too. As Slade approached, the door opened, and Callie, broom in hand, beamed a greeting.
"Hey," she called.
"Hey," Slade replied gruffly.
Callie Barlow was a small woman, big-busted, with an abundance of auburn hair held to the top of her head by a plastic clasp roughly the size of the jaws-of-life, and she wore turquoise jeans, pink Western boots and a bright yellow T-shirt studded with little sparkly things.
"Well, this is a surprise," she said, setting aside the broom and dusting her hands together. Her expression was warm, as always, but her gray eyes showed puzzlement bordering on concern. She knew Slade took his job seriously, and it wasn't like him to drop in during working hours. "Is the county running itself these days?"
"My deputies are holding down the fort," Slade answered. "Is the coffee on?"
He knew it was; he could smell the rich aroma wafting through the open doorway, along with tinges of industrial-strength shampoo and a variety of mysterious hair-bending chemicals.
"Sure," Callie responded, stepping back so he could come inside the shop. "That's about the first thing I do every morningplug in the coffeepot." The faintest ghost of a frown lingered in her eyes, and then her natural bluntness broke through. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Slade sighed, took off his hat and set it aside on the counter next to Callie's cash register. "I don't know if wrong is the word for it," he said. "I just came from Maggie Landers's office. It seems John Carmody remembered me in his will."
Callie's eyes widened at that, then narrowed in swift suspicion. "What?" she asked and had to clear her throat afterward.
He hooked his thumbs through the belt loops of his jeans and tilted his head to one side, watching her. If Callie had known about the bequest ahead of time, she was doing a damn good job of hiding the fact.
"Half," he said. "He left me half of everything he had."
Callie sank into one of the dryer chairs, nearly bumping her head on the plastic dome. She blinked a couple of times, and one of her false lashes popped loose at the outside corner of her eye. She pressed it back down with a fingertip.
"I don't believe it," she murmured.
Slade raised the dome above the chair next to his mother's and sat down beside her. Took her hand just long enough to give it a slight squeeze.
"Believe it," he said, not knowing where to go from there. He loved Callie and they were close, but she hadn't raised him to come running home to her with this or any other kind of news.
"What happens now?" she asked in a small voice. Her lower lip wobbled a little, and her eyes, usually bright and mischievous, looked dull, almost haunted.
"I have no idea," Slade answered quietly. "Not surprisingly, Hutch didn't take it real well. He's already offered to buy out my share of the ranch."
Callie closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them again, the shine was back. She was toughshe'd had to be, orphaned young and later giving birth to a child out of wedlock in a town where such things mattered, and mattered a lotbut her problems hadn't hardened her the way they would've some women. She'd taken things as they'd come, made the best of them and raised Slade to respect herand himself. She was one of the most emotionally balanced people he'd ever known, but he wondered sometimes how much of that was an act.
"Once or twice, when you were growing up," she recalled now, her tone musing and a little distant, "John slipped me a few dollars for groceries or light bills or something you needed for schoolthings like thatbut I never thought he'd do this. Not for one moment."