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This was probably a bad idea.
Arabella Clayton Michaels headed toward the back door of the big industrial kitchen inside the Clayton Christian Church fellowship hall. The Wednesdaynight meeting of the Church Care Committee was about to get started, but she was determined to check the parking lot for a silver sports car. She had a sneaking suspicion that she'd find that stranger hovering outside, the same stranger who seemed to be following her around town.
"Hey, Arabella, Zach's looking for you."
Arabella turned to where Gabe Wesson stood with some other men who'd helped set up the tables and chairs and were now waiting for the meal to commence. "Thanks. I'll be right back. I have to take care of something."
She didn't wait for a response, nor did she look for her cousin Zach. She'd talk to him later, after she found Mr. City Slicker and set him straight.
Her crinkled denim skirt flew out over her worn red cowboy boots as she took the back steps, her arms wrapped against the soft chenille of the blue sweater she wore over a white buttonup shirt. The fall temperature cooled with each dip of the golden sunset over the Rocky Mountains to the west.
But the chill covering Arabella didn't come from the crisp fall air. It came from a fear deep inside her heart. A fear that refused to let go. Arabella had an awful feeling her routine life was about to change. She couldn't explain this feeling but it was there, holding her down with all the heaviness of an anvil.
She'd felt this way since the day her grandfather, George Clayton, Sr., had passed away. Arabella was the only grandchild who'd stayed here in the tiny Colorado town of Clayton, founded and named after her ancestors. The feeling of a change coming in the wind had increased after the reading of her grandpa's will. The ornery old man had left $250,000 plus five hundred acres of Clayton real estate to each of his six grandchildrenwith certain stipulations, of course. One of them being that the other five adult grandchildren had to return to Clayton and live here for a yearor no one got their inheritance.
And Arabella, a single mother with triplet girls, would be forced out of the old Victorian home known as Clayton House. If her uncle Samuel's family had its way, she'd already have been booted out without a second glance. The other side of the Clayton family had hard feelings about the will. Because her grandfather had stipulated that if her cousins didn't come home to honor his request everything would revert to his brother Samuel, Arabella figured any slipup on her part could be used as fodder for Uncle Samuel's case.
That was why she was so concerned about this stranger lurking around town. What if her uncle had hired this man to spy on her and her cousins?
She intended to confront the man and ask him outright what he was doing here. Jasmine, the teenage girl who'd lived with Arabella for the past three years, had seen the stranger's sleek silver car earlier near the park.
The newcomer was probably a private detective hired by Samuel Clayton because he stood to inherit everything if her cousins didn't cooperate and come home. Or just as bad, the man could have been sent by her exhusband, Harry. It'd be just like Harry to hear about her possible inheritance and try to muscle in on things, even if the man did send sporadic checks to help with his daughters' care and wellbeing.
She'd fight this, not because of the money, even though money would be nice. She had to fight for her three little girls. And the first thing she'd tell the stranger she'd seen hanging around last month and again todaytake a long hike up a tall mountain.
She came around the back of the white clapboard church and squinted into the golden threads of the sunset. And saw the glint of a silver car flashing on the edge of the lot near a cluster of aspen trees.
Hurrying, her boots clomping on the pavement, Arabella didn't stop to think. With both hands she tried to open the car's passengerside door then looked through the dark windows.
The car was empty.
Then she heard a male voice behind her. "Looking for me?"
Arabella whirled to face the man who had caused her nightmares over the past few days. "You could say that. I don't like the way you've been watching me and my family. I want it to stop." She glared at him. "Just so you know, my cousin is the deputy sheriff. I've already alerted him about you. He's probably doing a background check as we speak."
Her cousin Zach had told her not to confront the man on her own. Too late for that now.
The man stepped forward, his dark blond hair as rich and golden as the glistening dusk. He looked good in his nicefitting jeans, fancy boots and wool sports coat. But even the worst of criminals could dress with moviestar quality.
"You've got it all wrong," he said, holding up one hand, a whiff of something spicy and woodsy drifting around him. "I can explain"
"You'd better start talking, then," Arabella said, her hands on her hips. "Beginning with why you've been lurking around my girls and me. I saw you a few weeks back and now here you are again. What do you want?"
He stepped closer, his smoky bluegray eyes sparkling with interest and intent. "I have a good reason for following you."
"Yeah, and I think I know what it is."
"No, honestly, it's nothing sinister or criminal. It's a bit complicated. I'm Jonathan, Jonathan Turner."
Arabella deciphered that and the bold look in his eyes. "Turner? That's Jasmine's last name."
"I know," he said, letting out a soft breath. "Her father, Aaron, was my older brother. I'm Jasmine's uncle."
Arabella grabbed onto the sports car, her breath hitching in her throat. "What?"
She heard the church door banging shut, then Zach calling out her name. But she couldn't move, couldn't take her eyes off this man. Up close he looked like a younger, better version of Jasmine's father, Aaron Turner. She'd only seen Aaron a couple of times around town, but the resemblance was right there, staring her in the eyes.
Taking a quick breath, she asked, "What did you say?"
He stood in front of her now. "I'm telling you the truth, Mrs. Michaels. I'm Jasmine's uncle. I've been trying to locate her and last month I asked around to make sure I had the right girl. And now I know I do."
"I don't believe you." Or maybe she just didn't want to believe him. Arabella didn't like change and lately change had been coming her way with all the haste of the falling leaves around her.
Zach walked up, scowled his deputy sheriff's frown at the man standing there and then took Arabella by the arm. "It's true, Arabella. I tried to find you to tell you. I ran a background check on him this afternoon. He's telling you the truth. Jonathan Turner is Jasmine's uncle."
Then Zach turned to Jonathan. "And all that aside, you'd better have a very good reason for messing with my cousin and her family, Dr. Turner."
Arabella looked from Zach to the man he just addressed as Dr. Turner. "A doctor? I can't believe this. We imagined all kinds of horrid things. When we first saw you, we thought you reminded us of someone, but I never dreamed" She stopped, her hands fisting at her sides. "That was mighty mean, what you did to us. What you did to that girl, sneaking around like that."
Jonathan lowered his head, forcing her to look at him. "I'm not trying to frighten you. Honestly. I only came here to find my niece and maybe be a part of her life. I live in Denver and I thought Jasmine should at least know me." He took a deep breath before continuing. "And, to be frank, I wouldn't mind if she came back to Denver with me."
Arabella's stomach knotted. So this was it, thenthat something terrible she'd been dreading. This man had come here to rearrange her carefully constructed life.
Or so he thought.
"Can we go somewhere and talk?"
Jonathan waited a couple of heartbeats, wondering if he'd be arrested for harassment or if Arabella Michaels would show him some sympathy and listen to him. Arabella Clayton Michaels, he reminded himself. From what he'd heard, the Clayton name sure carried a lot of weight around here. And there always seemed to be several Claytons around at any given time.
She bit at her wide, pouty lip then glanced over at the uniformed deputy sheriffwhat was his name Zach? Jonathan watched her, fascinated with the stubborn slant of her chin and the glint of dare in her catlike goldbrown eyes. When she tossed back piles of silky brown hair then focused those big eyes on him, he couldn't take his next breath. He waited for her decision, thinking that must be the reason he couldn't think straight. This woman stood between him and his niece.
She cut her gaze toward the sheriff. "Zach, thank you for the update. Could you excuse us, please?"
Zach held up a hand. "Arabella, I don't think"
"I've got this, Zach. Just keep Jasmine occupied until I can figure out what to do."
"Is she inside?" Jonathan asked, hoping to meet his niece at last.
"She is, but you don't need to bother her right now." The woman turned to her cousin. "Zach, please?"
Zach didn't look convinced. He pivoted toward Jonathan, his brow furrowing. "I don't know what kind of game you're running here, but if you do anything to hurt Arabella or her family, you'll have me to deal with. Understand?"
Although Jonathan respected the man for doing his job and trying to protect his cousin, he'd been more intimidated by gang members brought into the E.R. with gunshot wounds. "I read you. I only want to get to know my niece."
Zach dropped his hand. "I'll be inside if you need me, Arabella."
She nodded, then waited for Zach to stalk away.
"Protective, isn't he?" Jonathan said by way of getting through the icy chill in her eyes.
She gave him a look that could crumble Pike's Peak. "Claytons stand together. Well, at least my side of the family does anyway."
Hmm. Trouble in Claytonville? Jonathan filed that away for another time. Right now he wanted to discuss why he was here. "I admire that. And I'm sorry I scared you."
He motioned to a bench inside the spot marked as a prayer garden. Tall trees and fat shrubs gave the walledoff area a sense of seclusion. Inside, a fountain bubbled in the center, and colorful, fat mums bloomed in shades of red, orange and yellow in the flower beds. A plaque showing praying hands read "He will not leave you comfortless." Maybe the serenity of the place would calm both of them down.
She followed him, then sank against the stone bench, putting her elbows on her knees and leaning over, her head in her hands. "I thought you were some sort of private investigator or, worse, a creep."
He had to smile at that. "I'm neither, although I've been called worse. Lots of times."
She sat up straight, adjusting her shoulders into what looked like fight mode. "I can't imagine why. You sneak around spying on people. I'm a mother with small children. Why didn't you just come to my front door and tell me the truth?"
He didn't have a good answer for that. Shrugging, he said, "I'm not good at confrontations."
She shot him a measuring look. "You're a doctor?"
"Yeah. I'm better at telling people what I can and can't fix. Not so good in the emotional part of the conversations."
"So your bedside manner is lacking as much as your social skills?"
He grinned, glad she had a sense of humor. "Somewhat, or so I've been told."
Her lips pursed at that comment. "And you live in Denver?"
"Denver, yes. I have a highrise condo near the hospital."
She stared out at the aspen trees lining the parking lot. "Not so far away."
"No, not really. An hour or so."
"You can't take Jasmine away." She took in a breath, then stared over at him.
"Excuse me? She's not a kid. I don't plan on taking her away. But I am going to offer her a place to live if she wants it. I owe her that at least."
She gave him another glaring look, but her expression softened. "You heard me. You can't just barge in here and expect Jasmine to clap her hands in glee and pack her bags. She's eighteen now and making her own decisions. And besides, this is her home. She was born here."
"And had a bad life here from what I've heard."
Arabella leveled him with a scathing glance. "Yes, and where were you when she was having that horrible life? Where were you when she lived in that filthy apartment for months and months after Aaron Turner up and left?"
He had to swallow the lump of regret in his throat. "I didn't know"
"You didn't know or you didn't care? Were you so busy doctoring you couldn't even check on your own family?"
"My brother and I were estranged. We hadn't spoken in years. I didn't know where he was."
"And you apparently didn't try to find out."
"Yes, I did," Jonathan said, getting up to pace across the brick tiles. "I did. Many times. But Aaron wasn't one for sending greeting cards. He could hold a grudge, that's for sure."
"And where is he now? Or do you even care?"
A sick feeling hit Jonathan in his stomach. "You mean, you haven't heard? He's dead. He died about a month ago in a car crash. He was driving drunk."
Arabella put a knuckle to her mouth. "Oh, no. Oh, my goodness. Jasmine doesn't know that. No one contacted us." She gripped the bench, her hands down beside her skirt. "How am I supposed to tell her that?"
Jonathan wished he could make it easier. "She has to hear itand understand I just found out a few weeks ago. I'd have come sooner if I'd known. I didn't even get to attend his funeral."
"And why didn't you know? Why didn't you two keep up with each other?"
Jonathan looked down at the pretty garden tiles. "He hated me. Because I left. I got out."
Jonathan wasn't ready to give her an upcloseandpersonal history of his family dysfunctions. "It doesn't matter. We drifted apart after after our daddy died. But I'm here now. I don't want to let the same thing happen with Jasmine. I want her to know she has an uncle."
"And how will your family feel about this?"
He glanced at the praying hands set in stone. "I don't have a family. I'm not married and our mother died when we were little. Our father died years later."
"That's toughlosing your mother like that. I'm sorry."
He nodded at the understanding in her eyes. "That's why I want to get to know Jasmine. I'm her only close relative."
She stood, too, anger seeming to push away her compassion. "And you're willing to entice her to the big city even though she doesn't know you? Have you even considered what that might do to her?"
"More than you can imagine," he said, his own doubts matching the darkness in her eyes. "As you said, she's an adult now. Neither of us can force her to do anything. I hear she's engaged to some kidCade Clayton. Are you related to him?"