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Stephen Wells winced when he heard the unmistakable ring of his cell phone. Dammit. He'd meant to turn the blasted thing off before entering Jake Burrow's office because he knew how much the old man hated interruptions. He especially hated cell phones.
Sure enough, Jake glared.
"Sorry," Stephen said, digging the phone out of his pocket. He was about to switch it off when he saw the number displayed. Caroline? Giving Jake an apologetic look and a murmured, "I'll just be a minute," Stephen rose and walked out of the office.
"Stephen? Thank God I found you."
Although she was a year older than him, Caroline was his niece, the daughter of his older half-brother, Elliott. Stephen could hear the barely concealed panic
in her voice, and he froze. All he could think was that something had happened to Elliott. "What's wrong?"
Stephen couldn't breathe.
"You're not going to believe this, Stephen. He's getting married!" With each word, her voice climbed higher.
Stephen blinked. Married? Elliott? That was impossible. "Where did you get that idea? Just who is he supposed to be marrying?" She had to be mistaken. To Stephen's knowledge, Elliott hadn't even dated anyone since the death of his wife fourteen months earlier.
"Where do you think I got that idea? From him! He called not five minutes ago to say he's bringing this woman home with him."
"And that's not all. She's younger than me!" Once again, her voice had climbed.
"Younger than you?" Caroline was thirty-four. Elliott was fifty-seven. "How do you know that?"
"Because Dad told me. Oh, he didn't volunteer theinformation. I had to dig it out of him. And trust me, he wasn't too keen about admitting it, either."
Stephen didn't know what to say.
"She's obviously a gold digger," Caroline said bitterly.
"Oh, c'mon, you're jumping to conclusions." But Stephen's mind was spinning. When could Elliott have met this woman? And where? And why hadn't he mentioned her to Stephen? "Just who is she, do you know?"
"Somebody he met on one of his business trips to Austin." Austin was a five-hour drive from their southwest Texas ranch and Elliott, who had myriad business interests, traveled there often.
"Well, I'll be damned," Stephen said softly. He'dknown his brother was lonely since Adele's death. Stephen missed her, tooshe'd been a wonderful personso he could imagine how Elliott felt. But getting married? And so soon? To a woman so young? Stephen wanted to believe Elliott knew what he was doing, that this woman was worthy of his brother, that Elliott's considerable fortune had had nothing to do with her willingness to become the second Mrs. Lawrence. Yet even as Stephen speculated, he felt guilty. Elliott was a good-looking, virile man in terrific shape. And fifty-seven wasn't old by a long shot.
"You've got to come home, Stephen. He's bringing her here tomorrow."
"I can't be there tomorrow. I'll be back on Saturday."
"I want you to be here when they get here. I'm going to need the moral support."
"Look, Caroline, what's the difference? Me being there or not being there? It's not like they're getting married tomorrow. Besides"
Stephen wanted to say his loyalty and sympathy lay with Elliott. If anyone deserved to be happy, it was him. But Stephen knew better. Caroline was upset enough. No sense making things worse. He chose his words carefully. "I just think we should reserve our judgment. Give your dad a break, you know?"
"A break! He's obviously lost his mind! Anyway, I haven't told you everything. She's got a son. A son! And from what Dad said, he's younger than Tyler." Tyler was Caroline's son. "I'm telling you, you've got to be here. You're the one Dad listens to." This last was said with an undertone of resentment.
Stephen stifled a sigh. He knew Caroline would give him no peace until he capitulated. And the truth was, he did think it might be a good idea to be there when Elliott and the woman and her son arrived, if only to act as a buffer between Caroline and the happy couple. Maybe he could seal the deal on the filly with Jake quickly and leave for home early in the morning. "All right," he said with resignation, "I'll do my best."
But it took until noon the following day before the registration papers for the filly were ready and all the arrangements were made to ship the quarter horse out to the ranch the following week. Caroline hadn't been happy when Stephen called to tell her it was impossible for him to get there before late afternoon.
But it couldn't be helped. The filly was too promisingthey planned to use her specifically for breeding stockfor Stephen to walk away. He had a job to do, and no matter what Caroline wanted, he had to finish it before he could even think about going home.
At least he would make it back before dark. Stephen was certified on instruments, but he preferred to fly in the daylight, when he could see. Thinking about the Cessna 152 two-seater he'd purchased the previous year, he couldn't help smiling. Stephen had fallen in love with flying during his first year of law school at Harvard. He'd shared an apartment with a flying enthusiast from Connecticut and had quickly gotten hooked himself.
After renting planes for years, he'd finally decided to make the leap and buy his own. He'd been afraid Elliott would disapprove and try to talk him out of it, but his brother had encouraged him, even though Elliott was a white-knuckle flier himself who preferred to get
around by walking, riding his beloved horses, or driving one of his two trucks.
Stephen frowned. Elliott meant more to him than anyone on the face of the earth. He would, literally, lie down and die for his brother. He sure hoped Caroline was wrong and that this woman Elliott planned to marry truly loved him. Yet he couldn't help but worry.
Because even if the woman turned out to be wonderful, Stephen knew Caroline could make life miserable for her. Which would, in turn, make life miserable for Elliott.
And me .
Much of this and other problems would be lessened if Caroline had a place of her own. Even Elliott realized that, but he was too softhearted where his daughter was concerned to do anything about it. The trouble was, he'd encouraged her to move back to the ranch after her divorce four years ago, and now that Adele was gone nothing short of an earthquake would dislodge her. Even if she had been inclined to find a separate home for herself and her son, this new development would cause her to dig her heels even deeper.
Because if there was one thing you could count on, it was Caroline's fierce possessiveness where her father was concerned. This obsession, this need to be number one in her father's life, had begun when she was little, "the princess," the spoiled only child of parents who had wanted more children but were unable to have them so lavished all their attention and love on their daughter. It was the source of all the friction between Stephen and Caroline, for she was intensely jealous of the relationship between the two brothers. It was a measure of how upset she was over Elliott's engagement that she had
called Stephen about it, for normally he would be the last person she'd turn to.
Stephen heaved a sigh.
He smelled big trouble ahead.
"Don't worry, darling. Everything's going to be fine, you'll see."
Jill Emerson smiled at her fiancé. Elliott was such a sweetheart. She had never believed she would ever find a man like him. Considerate, thoughtful, kind, loving He was just all around terrific, and she was a lucky woman.
But despite Elliott's assurance, she wasn't sure everything would be fine. She'd seen the look on his face after he'd finished talking to his daughter and telling her about their coming marriage. He'd admitted afterward that Caroline was "a little upset" but had assured Jill that she'd get over it. "It's just that she didn't expect this," he'd added. "I should have told her about you months ago."
Caroline's reaction was much stronger than he'd let on, Jill suspected. He just didn't want Jill to worry. Truth was, Jill understood how Elliott's daughter must feel. Elliott had told Jill that Caroline had been very close to her mother. She was bound to be upset that her father wanted to marry again so soon.
Plus there's the age difference.
Elliott was fifty-seven, and Jill was thirty. To many people this would have been an insurmountable obstacle to the relationship, but the difference in their ages didn't bother Jill at all.
But Caroline couldn't know that. She probably imagined Jill was only interested in Elliott's money. After all, how was she to know that Jill loved Elliott and
would have agreed to marry him even if he wasn't wealthysomething Jill hadn't known when she'd first started seeing him.
Jill actually liked the fact Elliott was more mature. Older men were more responsible and committed, she'd found. Plus they had confidence and didn't constantly need propping up. Not that Jill had had that much experience with men of any age. In the past ten years she'd been too busy finishing college, and caring for her terminally ill aunt, as well as raising Jordan and supporting both of them after her aunt's death, to have much time for anything else.
As if he knew her thoughts had turned to him, Jordan removed his headphones and said, "Elliott, when are we going to be there?"
Jill and Elliott exchanged amused smiles. Although Elliott still didn't know Jordan the way Jill did, he'd known him long enough to realize the ten-year-old was long on curiosity but short on patience.
"It'll be another hour or so, son," Elliott said.
Jordan heaved a noisy sigh. "Okay."
"How about if we stop for some ice cream?" Elliott suggested. "There's a store right up the road that sells the best homemade ice cream you've ever tasted."
"Will ice cream make the time go faster?" Jill teased.
"As far as I'm concerned, good ice cream solves all the world's problems," Elliott said, winking at her.
The funny thing was, the ice cream did seem to make the remainder of the trip go fasternot that Jill was in any hurry to get there. But she knew Jordan was tired of being in the car and Elliott was anxious to get home.
"We're almost there now," Elliott said. "When we get to the top of that rise, you'll be able to see the ranch."
Jill smiled, even though inside she was a mass of nerves. I've made the right decision, she told herself yet again. I do love Elliott, and Jordan adores him. That's what counts. If his family is suspicious, they have a right to be. I'll just have to show them I'm not a threat. And I've got the entire summer to win them over.
She'd made it clear to Elliott that she wouldn't marry him until September, even though he'd wanted the wedding to take place immediately. She simply had to be sure his family would welcome her and Jordan. Accepting anything less would be unfair, not just to him but to all of them. Although Elliott had been disappointed, he hadn't pushed once he realized she'd made up her mind. The one thing he had said, though, was that he knew it would be uncomfortable for her if Caroline remained at the ranch after the wedding.
"We'll talk about her finding her own place," Elliott had promised.
"Don't do anything right away," Jill had answered. "Let's just see how things go."
Breaking into her thoughts now, Elliott said, "There it is."
The quiet pride in his voice warmed Jill. His love of home and family was one of his greatest attractions for her, a quality that had shone through even on their first meeting. Remembering that Saturday in January made Jill forget her reservations and smile again.
Elliott had come into the small gallery where Jill's paintings were sold and where she worked several afternoons a week and most weekends. He was looking for a
birthday present for his daughter, he said. Jill had immediately liked him: his kind blue eyes, the warmth of his smile and the attentive way he listened as she explained the merits of the different pieces that interested him.
He'd settled on one of her favorite paintingsa delicate watercolor of one of the old missions near her aunt's home in San Marcos.
"I hope your daughter likes this," she'd said as she wrapped the painting.
"I'm sure she will," he said. "All of your paintings are beautiful."
Just then Jordan had burst through the front door. On the days she worked there, she'd arranged for him to get a ride to the gallery after school, not only because hiring a babysitter to watch him until Jill got home would have strained her budget to a frightening point, but because Jill liked having him there.
He sat in the small office in the back and did his homework while having a snack; Jill's friend and employer, Nora O'Malley, always kept fruit and drinks in the refrigerator for him. When he finished, Jill would allow him to turn on the small TV back there, but she never let him watch more than an hour's worth of Animal Planet, his favorite channel. Instead she encouraged him to read.
Thinking about how Elliott had immediately shown interest in Jordan, and Jordan in him, Jill felt blessed. It seemed like a miracle that she'd found this man, who not only loved her but also loved her son.
Even so, she hadn't been sure about marrying him. When he'd first asked her, a month ago, she hadn't immediately said yes. Instead she'd told him how honored
she was that he wanted her for his wife, but that she'd need some time to think about it. "There are so many things to consider," she'd said.
"I understand," he'd answered before she'd had the chance to say anything more. "Take all the time you need."
That was another of his wonderful qualities. He had true empathy for people and seemed able to always place himself in their shoes. This was a rare trait in anyone, and Jill knew it. But still she'd hesitated. Marrying Elliott would bring about monumental changes in her life and in Jordan's. She would have to give up her teaching post as a traveling art teacher between several Austin schools as well as her job at the gallery, and she would be leaving everything familiarher friends, her church, her careerand going into the unknown.
"I wouldn't hesitate for a minute," Nora had said. "He's a catch, Jill. In fact, if you don't want him, I'm going after him!"
She'd laughed when she said it, but Jill knew Nora was more than halfway serious.
"Besides," Nora had added, "you can paint anywhere. And I'll always be happy to sell your work, you know that."
But the deciding factor in Jill's accepting Elliott's proposal came from Jordan. He'd been delighted when Jill told him she might marry Elliott, that they might move to Elliott's ranch.