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Four days later
"She was here again," Marlene Duncan said as Linc Stone strolled into the office of AA Atco Bail Bonds, Inc., a greasy sack of Memphis's best barbecue in one hand and a six-pack of bottled Coca-Cola in the other.
Linc grimaced. Though a few particularly pissedoff ex-girlfriends had been known to track him down at the office, he instinctively knew that Marlene wasn't talking about one of them. He swore under his breath.
She was talking about her.
Georgia Hart, the wedding planner from hell who was having a little trouble with the English languagerecognizing the word "no," specifically.
"What did you tell her?"
His father, evidently lured by the smell of barbecue, emerged from his office in the back and snagged a bottle of Coke, then popped the top off using the scarred edge of Marlene's desk. "Tell who what?" Martin wanted to know.
At six-foot-six, his father was a mountain of a man with a patience for fools the size of an anthill. He drove American cars, would only drink Coke out of the bottlebecause "plastic was for pussies" preferred Johnny Cash to Elvis, practically sacrilegious in their neck of the woods, and ate his steaks cooked rare. He'd never met a woman he couldn't charm, and at sixty-two, he could still arm wrestle his sons and win.
Galling, but true.
Marlene frowned at her desk, but refrained from saying anything. Despite the fact that she'd installed a bottle opener on the paneled wall next to Martin's office door, he still refused to use it. Just to annoy her, Linc imagined, smiling. Curiously, it was becoming one of his father's favorite pastimes.
"Ask your father. He's the one who eventually talked to her," Marlene told him. She doled out sandwiches and pulled a bag of gourmet chips from the filing cabinet behind her desk, which doubled as their pantry. He caught a glimpse of chocolate-mint cookies and made a mental note to help himself to a sleeve before he took off again. Cade's trail mix was in there, too, but Linc wasn't interested in that. He grimaced. Cade's "healthy" was Linc's "bird food."
Knowing that his father was a sucker for a sad case and female face, Linc inwardly winced with dread and let go a sigh. "What'd she have to say this time, Dad?"
"Same thing she's been telling you," he said gruffly, crowding onto Marlene's side of the desk. He nudged the paper aside, frowning at another political ad gracing the cover. It was that time of year again. "She just wants to tag along while you look for Carter Watkins. I don't see what the big deal is. She seems smart enough, and I know she's not pinup material, but she wouldn't point if a quail flew through the room, Son." He pulled a shrug. "What would it hurt to let her go with you?"
Marlene heaved a disgusted breath and glared exasperatedly at Martin. "You're a pig, you know that?"
Martin smiled, unrepentant. "I've been called worse."
Linc snagged the nearest chair and commandeered a corner of Marlene's desk, as well, moving her beloved picture of Bear Bryant to the side in the process. A die-hard Alabama fan, Marlene was damned hard to live with during college football season. He unwrapped his sandwich and, ignoring the quail comment, pretended to consider what his father had said.
Pretended being the operative word.
There was no way in hell he planned on letting Georgia Hart "tag along" with him.
"Why don't we let Cade take this one and she can tag along with him?" Linc suggested wearily, knowing the outcome.
Martin mopped a bit of mustard slaw from the corner of his mouth and scowled at his son. "Aw, hell, you know better than that."
Sadly, he did know better. In order to keep everything equitable between him and Cade, his father insisted on a strict case divvying system. Cade took one, Linc took the next one, Cade, Linc, Cade, Linc and so on. It didn't matter if Cade got two back-to-back high-dollar skips and Linc got stuck with two that would barely cover his utility bill. Fair was fair, according to the skewed logic of Martin Stone, and this was the feast or famine nature of the bond business. They could not trade files and, in most cases, couldn't help each other.
Or so they'd been told.
Fortunately, he and Cade were of the same mind that Martin's system wasn't fair and had privately agreed to work together on any file with a ten-grand or higher payout and split the difference. What their dad didn't know wouldn't hurt him and it sure as hell had helped them on occasion.
Linc had actually considered asking Cade to take the Carter Watkins case just so he wouldn't have to deal with Georgia Hart anymore, but it smacked too much of cowardiceof being scared of a girl, for chrissakesso he'd abandoned the idea.
Frankly, he didn't know why she managed to bother him so much. He selected a chip, finding himself reluctant to even think about her.
For whatever reason, Georgia Hart unsettled him. And that was worrisome in and of itself, because Linc Stone had never let a woman intimidate him.
Watching his father suffer after his mother had died in a car crash had given Linc all the evidence he needed to determine that marriage and love, specifically, weren't for him. He'd been twelve at the time and convinced that his father was invincible. Hell, his mother, too, for that matter. At an even five-feet tall, Lucy Stone might have been small, but she'd been a force to be reckoned with. Linc smiled, remembering. His father had always likened her to a summer stormquick to anger and quicker to forgive.
And, God, how he'd loved her.
The days following his mother's death were just a fuzzy memory of gritty-eyed grief, but his burly father draped over her rosewood coffin, sobbing as though his world had come to an end, was a picture that remained firmly etched in Linc's mind.
For months after she'd passed away, Martin merely sat and drank. Bathing became an afterthought and no doubt Martin would have starved to deathhe and Gracie includedif Cade hadn't stepped up and become the parent they'd needed. Cade had made sure their clothes were clean, their bellies full, their homework done. Cade answered the phone calls, assuring the rest of the family they were doing fine, when in reality they'd momentarily lost both parents.
Curiously, they had Memphis Power to thank for ultimately getting their dad back.
Three months after their mother had passed away, they'd come home from school to find that the utilities had been turned off. Martin, red-eyed and half-drunk, still weighting down the recliner, hadn't noticed.
For Cade, who'd been growing increasingly weary of his father's self-absorbed indifference, it had been the last damned straw. He'd exploded, much like their mother had in the past when she'd had her fill.
"You didn't just lose a wife, you selfish bastard! We lost a mother! Look at you! Look at us! We don't even have electricity and you're so out of it, you haven't even noticed. Are you going to go pay the fucking power bill, Martin, or are we dead to you, too?"
Whether it was the fact that Cade had finally snapped, called him Martin instead of Dad, used foul language or the "Are we dead to you, too?" Linc couldn't sayprobably a combination of all fourbut their father finally came around. He'd taken care of the utility bill and brought home a bucket of fried chickenfar from a nutritious meal, but it had been a start in the right direction.
Unfortunately, they'd all four learned lessons from that difficult period of time that had shaped who they were, their perceptions about life in general and how to live it. His father had eventually started dating again, but kept things completely superficial. The world as he'd known it had ended when he'd buried his wife. Though Martin eventually learned to cope, Linc knew there was a part of his father that had died along with her.
Cade had stopped calling their father "Dad" and addressed him simply as Martin. He'd been forced to abandon his own grieving in order to care for the rest of them and had appointed himself the guardian of the family, a job he took extremely seriously.
Linc had learned that love could destroy as easily as it could heal and had decided he didn't want any part of it, and Gracie, bless her heart, had learned that the Stone men didn't have a clue how to deal with raising a girl. She'd survived as best she could living in a house overrun with testosterone. The spitting image of Lucy and having inherited their mother's love of flowers, she'd opened a florist shop downtown and was engaged to be married.
Linc sighed, pleasantly full. No doubt she'd be the only Stone out of their clan tying the knot. Cade dated occasionally, but didn't appear the least bit inclined to settle down. His gaze slid to Marlene, who was currently fussing over the mess his father had made on her desk.
Martin displayed some territorial tendencies when it came to their new secretary, but Linc wasn't sure if it would go anywhere and, unless his father was serious about Marlene, he certainly hoped not. In addition to her baked goods and mother-duck tendencies, she was a crackerjack secretary, and she'd been through absolute hell recently.
After thirty years of marriage, her husband had taken off to Vegas with a local showgirl and promptly impregnated her, a blow that had been particularly tough for Marlene, who'd been unable to conceive. She'd retaliated by cleaning his plow in divorce court and taking half of his retirement. If the slimy bastard ever showed his face in Memphis again, he'd have the Stone clan to deal with.
His father, in particular, seemed entirely too taken with the idea of tearing the cheating bastard apart.
As for Linc himself, marriage simply wasn't in the cards. Even the faintest idea of being permanently attached to a woman made his belly clench with dread and his mouth parch with an emotion eerily similar to fear. It wasn't, of course, because Linc wouldn't allow himself to be afraid of anything.
Furthermore, though he didn't think he'd taken the womanizing to Martin's level, Linc nonetheless didn't form any attachments and made sure whomever he was seeing knew the score going in. He liked his women smart and confident and sexy. Smart women were good conversationalistshe'd never had any patience for stupid. Confident women weren't going to be devastated when the inevitable end came. They typically chalked it up to a good time and moved on.
And a sexy woman Linc grinned and chewed the inside of his cheek. Well, that was self-explanatory.