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Home To Texas
By Bethany Campbell
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGavin Chance stared at his sister in disbelief. "You sold the horses?"
"I didn't sell Licorice or India," Tara said, her gaze dropping.
She'd kept her son's pony and her own horse. But the other three animals had been sold a week ago. She'd wanted to cry, seeing them taken off, but she had run out of tears long ago.
She sat with her brother in his hotel room at a small table covered with a linen cloth and set for lunch. His visit was a surprise - he had flown to California out of concern for her. Tara had only picked at her salad, and Gavin had pushed aside his sandwich, half-eaten.
Tara looked out the picture window, but instead of seeing the skyline of Los Angeles, she saw her pretty little ranch outside Santa Clarita. Like the horses, it must be sold. There were already two prospective buyers. Soon her home would no longer be hers.
"But why?" Gavin demanded.
Tara kept staring at the skyscrapers. "We need the money."
Gavin swore and threw his napkin down, rising from the table to pace the gold carpet. He was three years older than Tara, an exceptionally tall man, whip-lean, with thick, sandy hair. Despite his rangy build, he had an artist's face, with a sensitive mouth and dark, expressive eyebrows.
He jammed his hands into the pockets of his cargo pants. "I mean why didn't you ask me for money?"
Tara toyed with a silver fork. "Del and I will get along. We're tightening our belts, that's all."
Gavin came back to the table, pressed both hands on it and leaned toward her. "You've sold your horses. You're selling the ranch. Good God, Tara. I'd have helped you. You know that."
She laid the fork aside with exaggerated care. Her brother was a rich man - on paper. In real life he was risking all he had trying to develop not one, but two model communities.
Though the first, in Hawaii, was still under construction, Gavin and his partners had taken a dizzying chance on a second. They'd bought a huge tract of land in Texas, paying millions for it. They would pay millions more for its development. Their plans were as ambitious as they were original, and the gamble was enormous.
So Tara had not told her brother all that was happening to her. Gavin had been in Hawaii, desperately trying to finish that project. He hadn't been to the mainland for months.
When they talked on the phone, she'd held back things. He had, she believed, enough burdens of his own. And she had her pride, her independence. Too much of both, Gavin had often said.
Now he glared at her in frustration. "You mean Sid still hasn't given you one damn dime in child support?"
"No," she said, her voice calm. She'd taken Sid to court. It had done no good. She could have him jailed, but the thought made her sick. How could she do that to Del?
"Does Sid ever come to see Del? Does he use his visitation rights at all?"
The questions hurt. Tara looked away from Gavin and out the window again. Her husband had left her and their son for another woman, a younger and very jealous woman. For her he'd given up everything: his home, his honor and, most shamefully, his son. Del, not yet five, was shattered.
Tara shook her head, unable to speak. Gavin leaned in closer to her, but she wouldn't meet his eyes. "Sid's still acting crazy?"
She pressed her lips together and nodded. She studied how the smog made the tops of the tallest buildings hazy, how it turned the sky murky.
"Is that why you sold the horses? Because he won't help?"
She hedged the question. "Partly."
"And the ranch?"
"I have to be practical. I don't know what's ahead. We were living beyond our means. And - and -"
Gavin groaned in anger and frustration. "Don't tell me. Is Burleigh making trouble again? About visitations with Del? About custody?"
Burleigh was Sid's widowed father, Del's grandfather. An imperious man, he'd disowned Sid over the divorce, but he blamed Tara for letting it happen. Del, he claimed, was now his only living kin, and he had a right to have a say in the boy's life. A big say.
Burleigh Hastings was powerful and, when he chose, he could be as disruptive as a hurricane. He was vice-president of a huge and prosperous company, and he loved control, control of things, control of people. Tara was certain Burleigh was the reason Sid had turned out as he had, and she feared his influence on Del.
"He's out of the country right now," Tara said. She was grateful for his absence, but knew that she and Del were inhabiting a false and limited calm. It was as if they were in the eye of a storm.
"But he'll be back," Gavin supplied. "Demanding his 'rights.' He'll scare Del and confuse him and do all he can to undermine you."
"Yes. He will." She was resigned to it. "But I'm prepared to ask for a restraining order against him if it comes to that."
"He'll make your life hell. Where is he? How long will he be gone?"
"He's in the Middle East. A big government contract. It seems they needed a 'forceful' personality there. It'll tie him up for two months, maybe three. I'm talking to a lawyer. I need to be ready for him."
Gavin knelt on one knee by her side. "Tara, you should take Del and get out of here." He took her hand between his. "Out of Los Angeles. Out of California. Away from this crazy situation."
She shook her head. She had to face facts. "There's no place to go, Gavin. My job is here."
Tara had grown up with horses and now she taught riding at Santa Clarita's Kane Stables - both regular classes and those for special needs students. She loved her job, and she was good at it. But she was also more than a little frightened. There were rumors of cuts in programs and staff.
Gavin pressed her hand more earnestly. "There're other places. Other jobs. And there's one that's perfect. I know California's always been home, but let it go. Look what it's doing to Del. What it's done to you. You don't look like my Tara anymore."
Her throat locked and her mouth went dry. Del was becoming an unhappy, nervous child, and she - she wasn't sure what she was becoming.
Gavin reached into his back pocket, flipped open his wallet and shoved a photograph in front of her. "What happened to this girl?"
She tried not to wince. The photo was a close-up of her, snapped a few years ago at a friend's wedding. She wore a wide-brimmed white hat, tilted low to emphasize her eyes. They were dramatic eyes, an unusual clear gray, the irises ringed by darker gray.
Her hair fell past her shoulders in loose waves. Her makeup was skillfully applied. The photo showed an elegant, even stylish, woman - she was tall, long-legged and slim.
But now that woman was gone, hidden away. Even today, meeting Gavin here in his hotel, she hadn't dressed up. After Sid had left, she'd thrown her makeup away and defiantly left her face plain, letting her freckles show.
Sid had once loved her wealth of auburn hair, shot through with red and gold. Now she had pulled it back severely and pinned it into a tight roll. She wore black slacks and a loose black blouse. She tried to look drab, and she had her reasons, but she wasn't sure she could put them into words to Gavin, or even to herself.
So she looked at her picture and saw someone who was both familiar and utterly foreign. She said, "Gavin, I just haven't felt like -"
"Like what?" he asked, one hand still grasping hers.
"I've had so many other things to do." She shrugged. The explanation sounded lame even to her.
He tucked the photo into his wallet and slid it back into his pocket. He put his thumb and forefinger under her chin and raised her face so she'd have to meet his gaze. "Tara, we have an offer for you. A job. It's perfect. You were made for it."
She cocked her head, puzzled.
Excerpted from Home To Texas by Bethany Campbell Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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