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A Little Town In Texas
By Bethany Campbell
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Send in the spitfire," Heywood Cronin said to his secretary. "The whirlwind. You know which one - from staff writing. The little redhead."
"Kitt Mitchell? Yes, sir," said Miss Lundeen.
"Writes like an angel," muttered Cronin. "Dresses like a bag lady."
"Oh, no, sir," Miss Lundeen said mildly. "She just likes to be casual."
"Casual," Cronin said with a snort. "She'd be a pretty girl if she'd dress up. O tempora O mores. That's Latin, Miss Lundeen. Do you know what it means?"
"Yes, sir. O, the times, O, the manners."
"Anyway," Cronin said, "send her in."
Miss Lundeen exited with such speed and silence it was as if she evaporated. Cronin looked at the picture of his wife, framed in platinum, on his desk. She was in her wedding gown, and a damn fine gown it was. He missed the 1950s when women had waists and wore pearls and full skirts and exciting shoes with pointed toes and high heels.
He chased the thought from his mind. That was looking backward. It was thinking like an old geezer. He was a man who looked forward, and that's why journalism awards half-covered his office. He intended to collect a few dozen more before he cashed in his chips. It was one of the reasons he cultivated young writers like the spitfire.
In a few moments, Miss Lundeen announced her. "Kitt Mitchell, sir."
And in she walked. Cronin fought against wincing. The woman wore cargo pants and a pale blue camp shirt. Her shoes made her look like she was going to climb the Alps.
She was a petite woman, barely over five feet tall, and she was slight rather than shapely. Still, Cronin thought, she was a fetching little thing. Maybe she dressed like Indiana Jones to fend off unwanted male attention. She could attract men like a magnet - if she wanted.
Her most startling feature was her long, flame-red hair. Her skin was fair, her eyes were blue, and her eyebrows and lashes auburn. She was pretty enough, but Cronin always found himself noticing the vivacity in her face before her actual features. In motion she was swift as a hummingbird.
She had a reputation for being sassy, of not being afraid of the devil himself. This did not mean that Cronin did not make her nervous. He made everyone on his staff exceedingly nervous; he considered it part of his job.
"Sit down, Mitchell." He ordered, he did not invite.
Kitt Mitchell gave him a measuring look and sat down in the leather chair before his desk. His desk was mounted on a dais so he could stare down, lordlike, upon whomever sat in that chair.
She returned his gaze with wary coolness. "Miss Lundeen said you wanted to see me."
He laced his fingers together and peered harder at her. She didn't squirm, not one whit. Was he losing his touch? He'd wipe that calm off her face.
"Yes," he said, hitting her with it immediately. "I'm going to give you the assignment of your life."
Her fair skin went paler. Her blue eyes got wider.
"This story won't just change your career. It will make your career."
She seemed speechless. Good. Inwardly he smirked.
"This is big stuff, Mitchell," Heywood Cronin told her. "It's got everything - money, mystery, power struggles. Sex. Revenge. But most of all, human interest. Your specialty."
He sat back with satisfaction and watched his words sink in.
Delight flooded Kitt. Suddenly Heywood Cronin, elderly, grizzled, balding and bent, looked as radiant as a spirit guide to her.
Then he squinted through his thick glasses and smiled his thin smile. "Go home and pack. Monday you leave. For Crystal Creek, Texas."
Crystal Creek? Kitt felt as if the office ceiling had crashed down on her. Dismay swept away her delight. Crystal Creek was the last place in the universe she wanted to go. Heywood Cronin no longer seemed luminously benevolent. He seemed like a capricious troll playing games with her life.
"Well?" he demanded, leaning toward her over his vast desk.
Say something! Kitt commanded herself. She cleared her throat. "Well, Mr. Cronin, you see ... I - I'm from Crystal Creek. It could cause a conflict. It would be hard for me to write objectively about it."
Cronin hunched lower, as if crouching for attack. "I want objectivity - up to a point. I also want feeling. Passion. A town ripped in twain, blah, blah, and so on."
"But - but, you see - there could be a problem -"
"No," Cronin said, shaking a bony forefinger. "You see. What you call a problem, I call opportunity. You can write about this place because you're of this place. You tap into its deepest psyche. It's your old hometown. The site of your fondest childhood memories. And so forth."
Kitt blinked hard. "You mean you knew I grew up there?"
He laughed the laugh that was famous at Exclusive magazine. It was described as the gurgle of ice water pouring over a grave. "Of course. That's why I picked you."
"Oh," Kitt said tonelessly. She'd hoped he'd chosen her for her ability.
"That," he said with a dismissive wave, "and the fact you can write. I assume you've lots of connections in this one-horse town? Relatives? Old friends and neighbors? People who'll pour out their hearts to you?"
Kitt drew a deep breath, mind whirling. She didn't think of Crystal Creek as her hometown; she tried not to think of it at all. When she'd left, she'd meant to leave forever. People opening their hearts to her? Hardly.
But - there was Nora.
Ah, yes, thank God there was Nora. A lifeline back then. And possibly a lifeline now. "I know people, yes," Kitt said vaguely.
"Then you know what this story's about? Eh? Do you?"
Kitt's mind spun more swiftly. "It has to be about Brian Fabian," she guessed. "About his buying land there. To build some megahousing development."
Cronin sank back into his chair and folded his hands over his vest. "Ha. You do have sources. Yes, Brian Fabian. He's always news. He sells magazines, by God."
So that was Cronin's angle, Kitt thought. If Brian Fabian was interested in Crystal Creek, so was Exclusive magazine. Cronin knew what fascinated the public, and he played that fascination like a magic flute.
Cronin's eyes stayed fixed on her, gauging her. "Tell me what you know about Fabian."
Kitt told him what she knew, what everybody knew - next to nothing. Fabian was a billionaire and almost total recluse. No known photo existed of him. Information about his private life usually proved to be false or misleading or both.
Facts about his business ventures were just as elusive. They were hidden in a maze of mergers, partnerships, shell corporations and deals of dizzying complexity.
"I'd guess he's the mystery in the story," Kitt mused. "And the money and power." Then she added, "And probably the sex."
One thing certain about Brian Fabian was his appetite for beautiful women. But none of these women ever talked about him. Never a one said so much as a word. His affairs remained as secret as everything else.
Cronin gave her a crooked, tight-lipped smile. "The sex? Not Fabian - this time. Sex came into the story with the lawyer he sent there to buy land. Nick Belyle. He fell for some local Venus and did the unthinkable. He violated Fabian's confidence. He told about the plans for the development."
Kitt said, "I heard."
Nora had sent a long, excited letter about it. At the time, Kitt had given it little thought. So Fabian wanted a few thousand acres in Texas for some harebrained housing development - so what? For him such a project would be no more important than a mere whim, an expensive toy.
"That lawyer," Cronin said, tapping his mahogany desktop, "let the cat out of the bag. And it was a rabid wild cat. Fabian wants to start a planned community. The folks in your old neighborhood want to stop it."
It's not my old neighborhood, she wanted to retort. But she said, "I heard that, too."
"A clan named McKinney's leading the battle. Know 'em?"
Kitt's body stiffened. J. T. McKinney owned the biggest ranch near Crystal Creek, and the McKinneys were the most important family in the county. Kitt knew more about them than she cared to remember, more than she dared to remember.
But she let her face betray nothing. "Yes. I know - most of them."
Excerpted from A Little Town In Texas by Bethany Campbell Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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