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Lily Spencer sipped her first cup of organic green tea while standing at the kitchen island of her town house, the pages of the Seattle Times spread out over the white marble counter in front of her. Early-morning sun spilled through the window behind her as she read, slowly turning the pages and enjoying the peaceful, quiet moments before her daughter awoke.
She skimmed the business articles and flipped the page to the Seattle Life section. A photo of a jogger at Green Lake was prominently featured at the top of the page.
Lily caught her breath, the gently steaming mug held motionless halfway to her lips. She narrowed her eyes and stared, trying to make out the man's features. But his face was partly turned away from the photographer.
Still, she knew with gut-deep conviction that the jogger was Justin Hunt. A gray tank top with a University of Washington logo left his broad shoulders and upper arms bare, the muscles of his thighs and long legs powerful beneath the hem of his black jogging shorts. Sunlight gleamed off sweat-dampened tanned skin.
She skimmed the brief caption beneath the photo, confirming her guess. The jogger was indeed Justin Hunt, in town for meetings the reporter speculated were important, since all four of the Hunt brothers had been seen in Seattle over the last twenty-four hours.
Lily leaned over the counter, her fingertips brushing the photo.
Then reality intruded and her lips firmed, compressing into a frown. She set her mug on the counter with a distinct clunk.
So he's back in town. So what?
She'd stopped jogging at Green Lake after Justin had dumped her. The wide asphalt track that circled the lake had been her favorite spot to run, but the possibility that she might see him, either alone or with another woman, wasn't one she cared to chance. Nowadays, she jogged along the waterfront, timing her visits to avoid the arrival of the cross-sound ferries and the wave of traffic from the passengers and vehicles they brought with them.
The baby monitor sitting on the counter next to the toaster crackled, followed by the subtler sound of rustling bedclothes.
Lily glanced at her wristwatch and smiled. Right on time, she thought.
"Ma-ma. Ma-ma." Ava's voice came clearly over the monitor.
Lily folded the newspaper and left the kitchen for her daughter's bedroom. Ava looked up the moment Lily opened the door. She grinned with obvious delight and held up her arms to her mother.
"Good morning, sweetie." Lily picked up the one-year-old toddler and cuddled her close. "Did you sleep well last night?"
Ava responded with a string of sounds interspersed with several "mamas," chortling when Lily nuzzled her downy cheek.
Lily carried Ava downstairs, tucked her into her highchair and shook a handful of Cheerios onto the tray. As Ava carefully picked them up, one by one, and tucked them into her mouth, Lily switched on the kettle for her daughter's morning oatmeal.
Justin is ancient history, she thought. He's probably in town for a meeting at HuntCom, and will be gone soon.
She picked up the newspaper and dropped it into the recycling bin, determined to forget the photo.
And Justin Hunt, as well.
Twenty-four hours after the meeting with Harry, Justin drove away from his aunt Cornelia's home in Queen Anne, dialed his cell phone and waited to be connected to his brothers. His conversation with Cornelia had convinced him there was a strong possibility Harry's threat to sell the company was real. Cornelia was growing increasingly worried by Harry's demeanor since the heart attack. Without prodding from Justin, she'd confided that Harry seemed uncharacteristically introspective. On several occasions, Harry had told her he wanted his sons to marry and have children. Cornelia was afraid Harry felt a need to right his wrongs, and that he was getting his fiscal and emotional affairs in order, preparing to die.
Privately, Justin thought the Old Man was too damned stubborn to die, but he didn't tell Cornelia that. She was one of the few women he actually respected, and she genuinely cared for Harry.
Of course, he thought, she'd known Harry since they were kids. They had years of history between them.
"Justin? What's up?" Gray spoke over a muted background of conversation and music.
"I've just left Cornelia's. I think we should take the Old Man's deal," Justin said bluntly. "Here's why." With a few brief words, he told his brothers what Cornelia had told him. "I own sixty percent of the ranch and I want the rest of it. I'm not willing to chance Harry selling the other forty percent to anyone else."
"You're willing to let him choose your wife?" Alex's tone was pure disbelief.
"No. Cornelia convinced me the Old Man's heart attack might have scared him enough to believe he has to force us to marry and have kids for our own good," Justin said. "I'm willing to tell him that's what's happening until we've had time to figure a way around this, or he realizes how crazy his demand is. But in the meantime," Justin added, "I'll do what's necessary to keep him from selling the ranch. If that means looking for a wife, that's what I'll do."
"He's bluffing. He'd never sell the company," Gray said with conviction. "Even if he does hold the controlling interest."
Which is a damn shame, Justin thought. He and his brothers, together with Cornelia and her four daughters, all sat on the board, but even if they voted as a block, they couldn't override Harry.
"I don't see it happening," J.T. agreed. "He spent his life building HuntCom. We all know the company is more important to him than anything else, especially us. I don't believe he'd sacrifice it just to see us all married with babies." Derision laced his words.
"We're in the middle of a buyout," Gray said.
"There's no way he'd consider selling the company until it's finished, and that might be months away. He's bluffing."
"How can you be sure?" Alex asked. "What if you're wrong? Do you want to chance losing everything you've worked for over the past eighteen years? I know I sure as hell don't want to see the foundation shut down or run by someone else."
"The only baby Harry's every cared about is HuntCom. There's no way he won't do what's ultimately best for the company," Gray said. "He always does."
"I sure as hell hope you're right," Justin muttered. "Where did he get the idea it was time we all went hunting for brides?"
"A Bride Hunt," J.T. grinned. "Sounds like one of those reality shows."
"Yeah," Alex put in dryly. "A really bad reality show."
"You know this won't work unless all of us are in," Gray said.
"And it won't work for any of us unless we come up with a contract that ties Harry's hands in the future," Justin added. "We have to make sure he can never blackmail us like this again."
"Absolutely," J.T. put in. "If he thinks he can manipulate us with threats, he'll do it again in a heartbeat."
"So we need an iron-clad contract that controls the situation." Justin could tell from J.T. and Alex's tones that they were considering whether to join him. He wasn't so sure about Gray. "If all Harry threatened us with was loss of income, I'd tell him to go to hell, and walk. But I'm not willing to lose the ranch. Nor do I want to be the cause of another heart attack that might kill him. What about the rest of you?"
The brief silence that followed his question was finally broken by Alex. "If it was just money, I'd tell him to go to hell, too. But it's not, is it?"
"It's about the things and places he knows matter most to us." J.T. sounded grim.
"Part of Harry's demand was that the brides not know our identity until after we're married. How are you going to find an eligible woman in Seattle who doesn't know you're rich, Justin?" Gray asked.
"I've been out of state for most of the last two years, plus I've never been as high profile as the rest of you."
"Yeah, right," J.T. scoffed. "There isn't a single one of us who hasn't had our picture in the paper or in a magazine."
"But not as often as Harry," Gray said thoughtfully. "He's the public face of HuntCom. I've got to give the Old Man credit, he's deflected as much publicity from us as he could."
"True," Justin agreed. "So, how about it, Gray? Are you in?"