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Gabe Wesson was a desperate man.
Inside the aptly named Cowboy Cafe, a hodgepodge of western types and various other townsfolk gathered at the long, Formica-topped counter for homemade pie and socializing. Gabe joined the counter crowd, his toddler son perched on his knee.
In a few short weeks, he'd discovered that if a man wanted to know anything or spread any news in the town of Clayton, Colorado, the Cowboy Cafe was the place to do it. Today, what he needed more than anything was a nanny for his son, A.J. Funny that he could run a corporation with dozens of employees but he'd hit a brick wall when it came to finding suitable child care in this tiny Rocky Mountain town.
He was a gambler of sorts, a speculator. Some would even call him a troublemaker, though he always left a place better than he'd found it.
He'd found Clayton to be a sleepy community time had forgotten. With an abandoned railroad track slicing through town and an equally abandoned silver mine perched in the nearby hills, the town was just about dead.
It was the "just about" that had brought Gabe here. He had a knack for sniffing out near-dead businesses and bringing them back to life. This giftand he was convinced it was a gift from Godhad taken him from a scrappy kid stocking groceries to the head of his own Denver corporation by the age of thirty-three.
But unless he found a nanny soon, he would be forced to move back to Denver, something he did not want to do. At least not now, not when the weight of the past two years was starting to lift.
The friendly young waitress, Kylie Jones, sailed past with a slice of hot pie oozing cherries and drowning in vanilla ice cream. Gabe's mouth watered. He ordered the pie and a coffee for himself and a grilled cheese with milk for his son.
Filled with the smell of home-baked cakes and cinnamon, the long, narrow cafe was warm, welcoming and always busy. Square wooden tables with chunky, straight-backed chairs crowded every space. The Denver Post, well-read and refolded, lay next to the old-fashioned cash register and a credit card machine. From a jukebox beside the door, George Strait sang about the best day of his life.
On the stool next to Gabe a cowboy type in boots and Wranglers angled a fork toward the street. A white hearse crept past. "They're planting old George today."
"Cody Jameson, show some respect." Red-haired Erin Fields, the surprisingly young cafe owner, took a swipe at the worn counter with her bleach rag. "This town wouldn't exist without George Clayton and his family."
Kylie, carefully filling a salt shaker, looked up. "Nobody liked him that much, Erin, even if he was the only lawyer in town. Or maybe because of it."
"Still. Speaking ill of the dead doesn't seem right. His grandkids are here for the funeral and they're good people." She propped a hand on one hip and gazed at the street. "Brooke came in yesterday and bought burgers to take over to Arabella's. That girl is still sweet as that cherry pie."
"I'd love to see Brooke again," Kylie said wistfully. She'd moved on to stuffing paper napkins into tall, metal holders. "We played basketball together in high school. She was a terrific point guard."
Erin tossed the bleach rag into the sink behind the counter and ran her hands under the faucet. "Then see her, Kylie. None of the Clayton kids have been in town for ages, but she'll probably stick around for a couple of days."
Kylie's pretty face tightened. "You know how Vincent feels about that side of his family."
Erin's lips thinned but she didn't say anymore. She took a pair of roast-beef-laden platters from the order window, grabbed an iced tea pitcher and moved toward a couple seated at one of the square tables.
Gabe listened with interest, gleaning the facts and the undercurrents. He'd returned to Clayton this morning after a three-day trip to corporate headquarters in Denver. Between then and now, the former owner of the Lucky Lady Silver Mine, George Clayton, had passed away. He wondered if George's heirs knew he'd sold the mine to an outsider.
While he contemplated what the unexpected death could mean to his company, Kylie stopped in front of A.J. A trim brunette, she was the fiancée of one of his new employees, Vincent Clayton. She always made a fuss over A.J.
"What a big boy you are. You ate up every bite of that sandwich." She felt A.J.'s muscles and received a giggle in return.
Fork paused at half-mast, Gabe said, "My job offer is still open."
"Sorry, no. I'd love to nanny A.J., but I'm getting married soon."
Gabe didn't know what getting married had to do with his offer, but he let the comment pass. "Got any other ideas for me? I need to find someone soon." Like yesterday.
Her brown ponytail swung side to side. "I've been asking everyone who comes in. So has Erin, and your sign is still up." She pointed to the fancy graphic-enhanced poster stuck to the front door. "So far, no luck. Who's looking after him now?"
"Me, mostly." That's what made the situation desperate. A job site, especially a construction zone, was no place for a curious toddler. Gabe sweated bullets every time he had to go to the mine. As work progressed, he'd need to be there more and more.
"Let me know if you hear anything, okay?" He took out his wallet and tossed a bill on the counter. "Keep the change."
Kylie's eyes widened at the size of the bill. "Wow, thank you, Mr. Wesson. I'll keep asking."
With a nod toward the cowboy and a wave toward the redhead, Gabe and A.J. pushed out into the summer sun as the last of the funeral cars crawled by. A pretty woman with wavy blond hair gazed bleakly through the passenger window. Something in her expression touched a chord in him. He knew he was staring but couldn't seem to help himself. A.J., tired of standing still, yanked at his father's hand. The woman, stirred by the motion, looked up. Their eyes met and held. Sensation prickled Gabe's skin.
The car rolled on past and she was gone. But the vision of those sad blue eyes stayed behind.
* * *
Brooke Clayton gazed around at the collection of Clayton grandchildren gathered in the conference room of the Clayton Christian Church like a bunch of errant schoolchildren sent to the principal's office. Not one of them wanted to be here at the reading of their grandfather's will. Yet, five of the six had come out of blood loyalty, not for Grandpa George Clayton, but for their cousin Arabella. It was her phone call, her need, that had brought them together again after more than four years.
Brooke's gaze rested on each beloved face. Her intense cop brother, Zach. Her sophisticated sister, Vivi-enne. Mei, the adopted sister of the only absent grandchild, rebel Lucas, and of course, darkly pretty Arabella. With a clutch of emotion, Brooke acknowledged she'd missed them, though she hadn't missed the painful memories of living in the tiny town that bore her family name.
Only family and a few close friends had attended Grandpa George's funeral services, although plenty of townspeople had stared at the procession on its journey to the cemetery. She wondered what they were thinking. Good riddance? Was there anyone who'd miss George Clayton, Sr.? None of the grandchildren had it in them to pretend what they didn't feel, and silly as it sounded, the lack of grief had made Brooke sad.
As they'd driven down Railroad Street, a man had stepped out of the Cowboy Cafe. A tall, handsome stranger with a very small boy.
That's when she'd begun to weep. Small children had that effect on her.
She'd once known everyone in this town of less than a thousand, but she hadn't recognized the man. They'd made eye contact, and somethingsome indefinable somethinghad passed between them. She'd thought about him and his beautiful brown-haired son off and on during the graveside service. Who was he? Why had that particular stranger's image been stamped on her memory?
"We need to begin." Pencil thin in an appropriately black suit, attorney Mark Arrington had already waited more than an hour for the sixth and final grandchild to arrive.
Calls had been made and letters sent, but no one was certain their rebellious cousin had received the summons. Even if he had, only one person in the room was confident of Lucas's attendance. His sister.
Brooke wiggled her feet inside the confining heels. With a broken pinky, pinching heels and her wounded pride, she hurt everywhere. A few days ago, she was planning a wedding. Now, she had no plans at all beyond getting through today.
"I don't think Lucas is going to make it," she said.
"If Lucas was coming, he'd be here," Zach added with coplike frankness.
"A few minutes longer." The quiet steel of Mei Clayton's voice drew every eye to her round, delicate face. Of all her kin, Brooke understood Mei the least. As she'd grown older Mei had pulled away from all of the Claytons except her adopted brother, Lucas.
"What makes you think he'll show?" Zach asked.
Mei sat up straighter in the cushioned chair, quietly insistent. Her gleaming black hair swung softly around her Asian features. "If he's needed, my brother will come."
The lawyer cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, everyone. I have another appointment in thirty minutes." With a gesture Brooke found overdramatic, the attorney pointed toward a flat screen. "If I may direct your attention to the TV. Mr. Clayton himself would like to address you first, and then I have the task of setting out the rules of the will."
Brooke exchanged frowning glances with her brother. What in the world? Zach lifted an eyebrow but offered no response. Whatever his thoughts, he'd keep them to himself until all the evidence was on the table.
The screen flickered to life and the face of Grandpa George appeared, looking a little too hearty to have been buried a few hours ago. Dressed in his usual dark business suit, he was seated behind the desk at his law offices. An uncomfortable hush fell over the five assembled Claytons.
"If you're watching this, I'm dead" George chuckled at his own morbid joke. "You're all wondering why I've dragged you back here. I haven't been the best grandfather. I haven't always done right by you, or by anyone, for that matter. But before the deaths of my two sons changed everything, we were a family. Not as close as we should have been, but we spent Christmas and Thanksgiving together."
"Then because of issues I hope you never know about, I lost my daughter, too. Kat won't even speak to me, and five of you grandkids have scattered across the country. Clayton, Colorado, might not be much, but it's your home, your history. My daddy started this town. My wife started the church. Claytons belong here." He pointed a bony finger toward the camera. "You belong here."
The cousins exchanged uncomfortable glances. Brooke knew they were all thinking the same thing. Having a dead man point at you was weird.
"I want you to come home," Grandpa said. "All six of youfor at least a year. Be a family again. Revive this dying town. Find your hearts and souls right here where you left them."
Zach pushed up from his chair and paced to the window.
"Sit down, Zach. You always did pace like a tiger when upset." Grandpa George chuckled. "If you didn't get up, you wanted to."
Zach returned his attention the video, arms folded, mouth quirked in wry amusement. Goose bumps shimmied up Brooke's back. Zach's philosophy might be "Never let 'em see you sweat," but Brooke was all for sweating. Grandpa George's video bordered on creepy.
"You may think Clayton is your past, son," Grandpa George went on. "But I know a thing or two about your present. Miami holds nothing but bad memories for you. Clayton and this county need you. Even dead, your old grandpa can pull a few strings, and you'd do mighty fine as Clayton County sheriff. Think about it, Zach."
Zach as county sheriff? Now there was an outrageously interesting and laughable idea. After what Zach had been through in Clayton? No way.
"As incentive, because I know none of you will willingly come home, I've left something for each of you." Grandpa George paused. Brooke refused to even ponder an inheritance. The old miser had probably left them all a pile of debts just for orneriness. "Two hundred fifty thousand dollars each, plus five hundred acres of Colorado real estate right here in Clayton County."
A clamor broke out in the room.
"How could he have had that much money?"
"I thought he was broke."
"I can't believe this."
Mark Arrington lifted a long hand. "Ladies. Zach. There are stipulations to the inheritance. You need to hear the rest."
Vivienne rolled her thickly lashed blue eyes. "Stipulations. That figures."
The clamor subsided, but Brooke's heart clattered wildly in her chest until she could barely hear her grandfather's voice. A quarter of a million dollars? She could she could do anything she wanted to. If she knew what that was.
Her cousin jumped. How many times in the past months had kind-hearted Arabella jumped up to do their sick grandfather's bidding?
"You're the only one who's stuck with your old Grandpa. That's why I'm leaving you the house, too, as long as your cousins cooperate and stick out their year. Without you, I wouldn't have made my peace with God. Leastways, Reverend West says the Lord forgives my sins, and though that doesn't make up for the wrongs I've done, perhaps this legacy of good I'm leaving behind will make a difference."
Arabella dabbed at her eyes. She'd worried a tissue into a ragged mess. Mei reached into her handbag and pulled out a handful of tissues, offering them to her cousin without a word.
"So there you are, children," Grandpa George said. "An inheritance that can change your lives if you choose to accept it. But the will is ironclad. No exceptions. All of you have to spend a year in Clayton. And you have to come home by this Christmas. Hear that, Lucas?" He rapped twice on the desk. "No later than Christmas.
"This is my chance to leave a legacya good onefor the town that bears my name. I know what you're thinkingtoo little, too latebut I ask that each of you look in your hearts and find one happy memory of me. It might take a while, and you might be reluctant, but you'll find at least one. And maybe it'll help."
The television screen flickered and went dark. The conference room was so quiet Brooke could hear her finger throb.
Mark Arrington cleared his throat. "So there you have it. Spend one year in Clayton and inherit a fortune."
Vivienne, elegant and classy in black and white, was already shaking her dark blond head. As a renowned New York chef, she had worked hard to shed her rural ways. She loved the city. She loved her life. "I can't just walk away from my career. What am I supposed to do in Clayton? Flip burgers at The Cowboy Cafe?"
"We all have jobs, Viv," Zach said quietly.