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As always, willing or not, Kerry MacBride came soaring to the rescue. When her final paycheck for the school year arrived, she really should splurge on a pair of bright tights and a cape.
Heart thumping in time with her sprinting footsteps, she rushed down the all-too-familiar main hallway of Lakeside Village's clubhouse, the center of this age-fifty-plus planned community and, in fact, the social hub of the entire town.
As if the future residents of the community had planned it that wayand knowing Gran and some of the other residents, they probably hadthe Village sat smack in the middle of her tiny hometown of Lakeside, Illinois. From various vantage points on the property, you could look in all directions and see just about everything worth seeing.
Right now, all she wanted to see was both Gran and Uncle Bren safe inside the facility's game room, where the volunteer at the front desk had told her she would find them.
She had her doubts, though. Who wouldn't, after the message she'd heard on her voice mail earlier that afternoon?
Well, Kerry, Uncle Bren had rumbled into her ear in farewell, the next time you see me, it might be behind bars.
She should know better than to fall for this. Or to get involved in another one of his crazy schemes. Or even to drop everythingon a Thursday, no lessand head for home on the off chance he was telling the truth.
With one more day of school left, she hadn't planned to come down until the weekend. She should be home right now, packing for her dream-of-a-lifetime trip. She, who had never left Illinois, would be spending the summer in Europe! It still dumbfounded her to realize she had been chosen for the art fellowship.
But, though the plea went unspoken, she'd heard the desperation beneath Uncle Bren's words. That fact had her making the drive from her apartment in Chicago to Lakeside in less than three hours. Under the speed limit, too, of course. Barely.
Kerry also knew better than to risk a run-in with a police officer. But Uncle Bren? And Gran? Much as she loved them both, it wouldn't surprise her to find either of them in trouble.
She burst through the doorway into the game room, skidded to a halt on the polished tile floor, and confronted chaos.
The room overflowed with people, all yelling at once. The loudest roar came from a dark-haired man tall enough to dwarf Uncle Bren's near-six-foot frame. The man, slim but muscular in a pearl-gray suit, looked ready to split the jacket's seams with his wide-armed gestures.
Thank goodness, Gran stood safely out of his reach. But Uncle Bren, hemmed in by the crowd, faced the brunt of the stranger's anger.
Even without her years of artistic training, Kerry would have seen something wrong with this picture.
"Excuse me," she said, using her project-to-the-back-of-the-classroom tone. "What do you think you're doing?" The question drowned out every voice in the room. The shouting subsided and every head turned her way.
As she moved forward, people parted, allowing her to pass.
A slim older woman stood beside the man confronting Uncle Bren. She put her hand on his arm. "Matthew, sweetheart"
"It's all right, Mom, I'll handle this."
As Kerry approached, the woman glanced at her, frowned anxiously in Bren's direction, then took what looked like a reluctant step back.
The man now faced Kerry, his eyes dark with anger. She caught her breath at the fury in his expression but didn't break stride until she'd reached him.
Looking upway upshe met his gaze. "What's going on here?"
After a long, tense silence, he answered, his tone level. "We're holding a meeting."
She widened her eyes. "It sounded to me more like you're having an argument."
Behind him, Uncle Bren stood unmoving but nodded in confirmation. Trust him to let her pick up the problem and run with it.
The man took a deep breath, which now strained the buttons on his immaculate white shirt, and traced his thumbnail across one eyebrow. "I only argue before a jury. As we're not in courtyetthat doesn't apply here."
She swallowed a wave of panic. "You're a lawyer?"
Great. A lawyer who had just stood ranting at Uncle Bren. Things couldn't get any worse. Or could they? And did she really want to know? "You look like you could use a little assistance with this meeting."
He smiled. Despite the situation, she couldn't help but notice how it changed his entire expression, easing the hard frown lines bisecting his forehead, even lightening the color of his eyes from near black to a dark greenish-gray. An interesting transformation.
She didn't trust the change in him for a minute.
Still, she squinted at him and found her head tilting slightly, her fingers curling around an imaginary paintbrush. With an effort, she blinked, bringing herself back to harsh reality.
"I could use a warrant and a padded cell." He gestured over his shoulder. "If you think you've got any chance of knocking some sense into that scam artist, go right ahead."
She squinted again, not in pleasure this time. "Wait a minute"
"You've got no call to say that," Uncle Bren interrupted, glaring at the man.
He sounded intimidating enough, but Kerry knew the real threat would come from her grandmother, always famous for jumping into any brawl.
Kerry looked over her shoulder. Sure enough, here Gran came, pushing her way through the crowd, barreling toward the lawyer and Uncle Bren. Kerry moved hastily toward her. Fortunately, as she closed in, the crowd surged around them both.
"Out of my way, Kerry Anne. I don't let anyone use such talk to my family, children nor grandchildren." She added ominously, "And you know what happens when I get my Irish up."
"I do know, Gran," Kerry agreed.
"Maeve, we need you here," one of the residents called.
Gran started pushing again, heading in that direction. Kerry breathed a sigh of relief but couldn't help looking fondly after her.
Kerry had spent most of her childhood living down what happened when Gran's temper got the better of herthough, she had to admit, the results were sometimes all to the good. Such as the time Mom and Dad, both archaeologists, had wanted to leave their offspring permanently with Gran and Grandpa to head off for parts unknown. Children weren't allowed to spend more than brief visits at Lakeside Village, but Gran had fixed that.
The story Gran told about taking on the raising of her grandkids had been repeated so often, it now had the flavor of family legend.
The nerve of them, trying to keep my grandchildren out of the Village and my own home, too. At that point, Gran would smile wickedly and add, All it took was me getting my Irish upand threatening to share more local scandals than you'll ever see on those daytime television shows.
Kerry didn't doubt Gran would have done it, too, if necessary. Luckily, everything had worked out, and she and her brothers had grown up with Gran and Grandpawith occasional long visits from Uncle Bren.
Thinking of him and this situation made Kerry sigh.
The crowed shifted, buffeting her aside. Reluctantly, she turned back to the lawyer and found him standing in front of her.
Glowering, they stared each other down.
Before Kerry could speak, a deep voice called out, "All right, now, folks, let's settle down and regroup."
She recognized Albie Gardner, leader of the residents' association, on the fringe of the crowd. He stood wider than he was tall, his bare scalp just visible to her above the heads of the people between them. Albie's baritone cut through the high pitch of emotional outrage even more effectively than she had done.
"Matt Lawrence," he bellowed, "you called this meeting to ordernot that we've seen a lot of orderliness around here yet. But it's only fair you get a chance to speak. You were gearing up to state an opinion."
"I was," the lawyer said emphatically.
When Matt turned away, Kerry took the opportunity to slip around him and stand closer to Uncle Bren.
"You've all got to see a project like this one is risky at best," Matt told them. "At worst, it's doomed from the start."
A pulse ticked in warning at Kerry's temple. Something had to account for an extreme statement like that one. And much as she hated to admit it, she could hear the concern beneath Matt Lawrence's words.
"You can't know how things'll end up," a woman called out.
"I can make a good assumption, though, based on how they began. Did you do any market research before you made your decision? Did MacBride show you any safety reports on the property? Or any kind of paperwork at all?"
The pulse in Kerry's head started banging away like the fire alarm bell in her classroom at school. What had Uncle Bren gotten these poor people into?
A woman across from their tight circle shook her head. "He's Maeve's sonhe wouldn't steer us wrong."
"You're right about that," Gran put in smugly.
"Is that so?"
Matt's glare would have pinned Uncle Bren in placeif he'd noticed. Kerry couldn't miss it. Forget a trial and sentencing and time off for good behavior. This lawyer wanted a lynching. And it looked as if he wanted it now.
Almost unconsciously, Kerry took her uncle's arm.
"What's going to happen if the project never gets off the ground?" Matt pressed.
A few of the people around them shifted position, their faces crumpling into worry lines.
"It will," someone from the back of the room called.
Other voices chimed in.
"We'll see to it."
"Things will be fine."
"And if they're not?" Matt persisted. "Your investments will be gone."
"He does have a point," one trembling voice said.
Someone added agreement.
As the shouting rose again, Kerry felt her uncle jump. She shot him a glance and leaned close to whisper, "What's this all about, Uncle Bren?"
She could feel him stiffen, sense his reluctance to speak. Trying to force the words through her suddenly tight throat, she repeated, "Uncle Bren?"
"Well," he whispered, "II've up and bought Rainbow's End."
"You've what?" Shock made her speak out loud, but with all the commotion around them, no one noticed. Except Matt Lawrence, who narrowed his eyes and focused on her mouth as if wanting to read her lips. A tremor of dismay rippled through her.
Turning sideways to block Matt's view, she blurted, "Uncle Bren, are you ?" Biting off the words with an effort, she felt helpless to do anything but shake her head at him.
He looked crestfallenfor all of three seconds. Then he rallied, announcing with the usual Brendan MacBride aplomb, "Kerry, me girl, it was a steal."
She prayed he didn't mean those words literally. Already, the news was more than she could bear. How could anyone have supported Uncle Bren in buying a derelict amusement park? All of Lakeside knew he belonged to the eccentric MacBride clan. Yet, if what Matt Lawrence had said was true, her uncle had persuaded this roomful of peoplemany of them retirees on limited incomesto invest their savings in his wild idea.
"Uncle Bren," she said fiercely, knowing the uproar around them drowned out her voice, "you've got to give them their money back."
"I haven't got it," he admitted.
Swallowing a groan of frustration, she brought her trembling hand to her mouth. Uncle Bren had gotten into scrapes on a regular basis, for as far back as she could remember. They were always harmless, well-intentioned ideas that just hadn't worked out. They'd never involved anything on a scale like this. He'd really let himself in for trouble now.
Which meant Kerry was in trouble, too.
She had to stall. Had to buy Uncle Bren some time so she could find out what had happened to the money and figure out how to get him out of this predicament. She couldn't question him here, with that angry lawyer still watching.
As Albie joined their inner circle, the voices around them hushed. "I'm sure Bren has answers to all our concerns," he said to the crowd.
"Of course," Uncle Bren replied glibly.
Of course not, she would bet. But on the off chance he might be able to give her something to fight with, she grabbed at his words.
"Yes, he has answers," she announced firmly, focusing on Albie and trying not to notice Matt's narrow-eyed glare. "He'll just need some time to pull them together."
Matt made a choking sound indicating disbelief. She ignored that, too.
"Seems reasonable," Albie said. "Bren, why don't you take the next couple of days and come up with a proposal that will address everyone's concerns."
"Hold on," Matt said. "If he didn't have all the answers up front, what was he doing signing a contract?"
"I'm sure we'll find out. Bren, give us a rough idea of where we stand with the project. And where we're going with it."
"Not a problem." Uncle Bren grinned.
"Not at all," Kerry confirmed. What choice did she have?
The plane for Europe took off in a week. She was going to be on it. You didn't give up the chance of a lifetime second time around. Right after college graduation, she'd received a fellowship offer, tooand another family disaster had upset all her plans. That wouldn't happen now.
A week gave her plenty of time to save Uncle Bren.
"What makes you qualified to draw up a business plan?" Matt Lawrence asked him.
"Me," she said flatly, before Uncle Bren could reply.
Matt turned her way. "You?"
She nodded. "I've taken business and art management classes and spent a summer supervising an art festival in Chicago. Outlining a game plan for an amusement park will be a snap."
Matt locked gazes with her. His eyes, now dark again, generated enough heat to make her flushoutside and in. Even so, she stood unblinking, unable to force herself to look away. Frozen in place, like Bambi trapped by the headlights of an oncoming 18-wheeler.
Over her shoulder, Kerry watched Albie lead Matt Lawrence from the room. Matt continued talking, fast and furiously, even as they went through the doorway into the hall. He hadn't been at all happy about Uncle Bren's reprieve.
The rest of the group disbanded, leaving the game room quickly and a lot more quietly than Matt had done. Somehow, Gran had slipped away with them, too.
Fine with Kerry. She needed time alone with Uncle Bren, a chance to get the full story, without anyoneespecially that lawyerin their vicinity.
Sighing in relief, she turned back to her wayward relative, put her hands on her hips and looked up at him.
"Well, it's grand to see you," he said hurriedly, in an obvious attempt at nonchalance that didn't fool her one bit. "But I thought you were still wrapping things up at that school of yours. What brings you here?"
"What ?" Struggling to snap her mouth shut, she focused on the rack of pool cues on the wall beside them. By the time she'd counted every last one, she could speak in a normal tone again. More or less.