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Holly Heflin walked into the lawyer's office in Co-nard City with more uncertainty than she had felt in a long time, and she was used to facing some pretty ugly situations. But this was different-the reading of her great-aunt's will. She was, as far as she knew, the only heir, so her concern didn't lie there.
But she had arrived in Denver after a red-eye flight, hopped into the cheapest rental car she could find and driven straight here to make this meeting. She felt tired, grungy and most of all overcome by memory. Facing this meeting seemed so final.
Returning to Conard County wasn't easy, but she had the fondest memories of visits to her aunt's from childhood and early adulthood. They had begun washing over her from the instant the surrounding country began to look familiar, and with them came the numbness she had been feeling since the news of Martha's death had begun to give way to a deep well of grief.
The last of her family had died with Martha, and a sense of her solitariness in the world had been striking her in an utterly new way.
But she shoved all that down as she spoke to Jackie, the young receptionist. Get through this. Get to the funeral home to watch Martha's ashes placed in a mausoleum. Martha had always used to say she wanted to sprinkle her ashes around the ranch, but apparently that wasn't allowed, because the attorney had been quite definite, and Martha had paid all the expenses in advance.
God, the ache was growing. The reality was beginning to settle in, tightening her chest.
The receptionist ushered her into a spacious but ancient-looking office. She supposed the balding man behind the desk was the attorney, but then she saw the cowboy in one of the chairs facing the desk.
Her heart immediately jammed into her throat. Cliff Martin? Here? Of all the people on earth she never wanted to see again, he topped the list. She'd been busily burying her memories of him for nearly a decade now, trying to forget, trying to forgive herself. Apparently she hadn't succeeded.
He had always been attractive, but at thirty-two, Cliff Martin had become attractive to the point of danger. Weather and those ten years had etched themselves a bit on his face. Age had taken away any softness and his face now looked hard and chiseled. Those eyes were the same, though, an incredible turquoise that would make him a standout anywhere.
An instant shaft of remembered passion pierced her numbness, arrowing straight to her core and causing her insides to clench. She'd never wanted to see this man again, but apparently her body had other ideas. She glanced quickly away.
Both men rose immediately at her entrance, a courtesy that seemed quaint after the life she had been living. She tried not to look at Cliff, but couldn't help noticing that he seemed taller. Was that possible, or had her memory shrunk him? Broad shoulders, narrow hips Stop, she ordered herself. Just stop it now. She didn't need this.
She immediately shook the lawyer's hand as he introduced himself. "John Carstairs," he said. "Good to see you, Ms. Heflin. And you remember Cliff Martin."
She turned to Cliff, wishing he didn't look as if he had just stepped out of a movie poster or ad. Darn, his dark hair didn't even show a thread of gray, unlike hers.
Cliff Martin. The man who had been helping her aunt keep the place up the past few years. The man who leased most of her aunt's grazing land. The man she had ditched. Her hand trembled a bit as she offered it.
He spoke. "So you finally got back here."
It sounded so much like a criticism that she had to bite back an angry retort. All she could do was drop her hand, turn away and take the empty chair. Working on the streets with troubled kids had taught her to be wary of how she responded to people. Problems could start in a flash.
She managed to keep her voice even. "I've been back."
The men sat. She avoided looking at Cliff Martin and focused on John Carstairs. "I traveled all night," she said. "I may be a little slow this morning."
He at once reached for his desk phone and punched a button. "Jackie? Could you bring some coffee for Ms. Heflin?" He arched a brow at her.
"Make it black. Thanks, Jackie."
He released the button and sat back. Waiting. There was a strong sense of waiting, which made her even edgier after her race to get here. Then he said, "I'm sorry we had to meet under these circumstances. Your aunt was a wonderful woman."
"Yes, she was," Holly said honestly. "I'm going to miss her."
"Really," drawled Cliff.
At that she turned to stare at him. "How would you know? You know nothing."
"You haven't been around much."
That wasn't true, but again she bit back her retort. This man had no need to know anything, and she wasn't going to dignify his criticisms with explanations he had no right to.
"Please," said the lawyer, "let's be pleasant, shall we?"
Holly was all for pleasant. She was too tired for the spat Cliff apparently wanted. Jackie entered, setting a cup and saucer on the edge of John's desk in front of
Holly. "Thank you."
Jackie smiled, nodded and walked out, closing the door quietly behind her.
John leaned forward. "As I told you, Ms. Heflin, your great-aunt made all the arrangements. They'll be waiting for you at the funeral home after we're done here. But there are other things we need to discuss."
"Yes," she said. There was also one thing she knew for sure, that a visit with a lawyer was supposed to be private. "But what is Mr. Martin doing here? You said I was Martha's sole heir."
"He," said John, "is the executor."
Holly's mind whirled. Maybe it was fatigue. Maybe it was burgeoning grief. All she knew was that she felt as if she had been sideswiped by a Mack truck. "Why not you?" she asked quietly.
"Conflict of interest. And it was your aunt's decision."
"Of course." She was still trying to take this in. She was going to have to deal with a man who had every reason to believe she was hateful? Well, it wouldn't be the first time. Still. She reached for the coffee and took a few sips, hoping to assemble her brain into a more orderly pattern than it seemed to be following right now. She noted that her hand trembled, and she quickly put the coffee down.
Deal. The word wafted up. She always dealt. Whatever life threw her way, she was good at it. She'd deal with all of this somehow, from grief to that nasty cowboy.
"I'm going to give you a copy of your aunt's will to read at your leisure. In the meantime, I'll just go over the broad aspects here."
"That's fine." She certainly didn't feel up to dealing with anything detailed.
"You've inherited the ranch. It's free and clear except for the leases. As the law makes clear, those leases to Mr. Martin remain in place, and your aunt's will states that he is allowed to continue leasing the land at his discretion for the next ten years."
Holly felt her heart began to sink. That meant she would have to deal with this ghost from her past indefinitely.
"Your aunt was also a very careful woman, and left you a great deal of cash, a quite surprising amount, actually. Mr. Martin has the necessary papers giving him management of the estate, and he'll take you to the bank to transfer the accounts into your name."
Holly managed a jerky nod. Nothing seemed to be penetrating except that she was now locked into some kind of long-term relationship with a man she had been avoiding for a long time. A man she had never wanted to see again. Martha had known that. What had possessed her aunt?
"In addition, you're not allowed to sell the ranch for at least ten years. But your aunt added something to that."
Holly lifted her head. "Yes?"
"She said to find your dream. I'm not sure what she meant."
Holly's heart rose, just a bit. God bless Aunt Martha, even though she didn't know what her aunt meant. "I'm not sure, either."
Carstairs shrugged. "Well, that's what she said, and if it has anything to do with the ranch, she made sure it would be possible for you. So those are the essentials. The rest is mostly legal stuff that you can call me about if you have questions."
Sooner than she would have believed, she was out of the office and back on the street. Downtown Conard City hadn't changed in any way she could perceive. It seemed to be cast in amber, preserved and unchanging. It had always charmed her, coming as she did from larger towns and cities, and she paused for a moment to soak it all in. There was a peaceful air to this place that had never failed to draw her during her visits. But since Cliff, she had never wanted to make this her home.
That wasn't likely to change. She started to turn toward her rental when Cliff's voice yanked her up short. "The funeral home is the other way."
She turned. "I know. I'm driving." What did he care?
"It's not that far. I'll see you there then."
He was going to be there, too? Somehow she had imagined herself quietly putting her aunt to rest. But of course Martha must have had friends. She looked down at herself, at her overworn black sweater and slacks, and wished she had thought this through. Surely she could have dressed better for this?
God, all that had been on her mind was getting out here in time. To do her last act for her beloved great-aunt. She'd raced to find a plane ticket, fought to reserve a rental car that wouldn't completely impoverish her, put on something black and fled her dingy apartment.
Now she felt as dingy as the streets she had left behind.
She climbed into her car, found a brush in her purse and ran it swiftly through her wavy chestnut hair. A glance in the rearview mirror told her that her makeup was long gone, not that she cared. Instead of primping any more, she headed for the funeral home.
Inside she found her fears confirmed. Some forty or fifty people milled about the place, and while she couldn't remember any of them, they all seemed to know who she was. She was quickly swamped in condolences and a sea of names. Some offered a memory or two of her aunt.
And with each memory her throat grew tighter. Soon she could feel the sting of withheld tears in her eyes, and wished only that this would be over so she could get out to the ranch and cry in private.
God, she hadn't even had time to get some flowers.
None too quickly, the funeral director announced it was time. The crowd followed him at a somber pace as he carried Martha's urn through a door, across a covered walkway to a large concrete mausoleum. There, one door to a niche stood open and waiting.
Holly swallowed hard. She swallowed even harder when a man stepped forward and said, "I was Martha's minister for many years. I know she refused a memorial service, saying she only hoped that she would be well remembered. We remember Martha well indeed. A generous woman, with a kind heart. We are grateful she passed swiftly and without warning, and know that she rests now in God's love."
Then he insisted on reciting the Twenty-third Psalm. Before it was done, the unbidden tears were rolling hotly down Holly's cheeks. When the funeral director slid the urn into its niche, she stepped forward and laid her hand on it, not wanting to see it disappear, hanging on for one last moment.
"I love you," she whispered. Then she stepped back and watched the director close and lock the door. A brass plate on the outside listed Martha's name, her dates of birth and death. Nothing else.
When she turned she found all those people looking at her as if they expected her to speak. A moment of panic fluttered through her, memories surged, and then she remembered something her aunt had once said to her.
"Aunt Martha told me that she wanted to leave a small footprint in this world. That she wanted to leave the land as it was meant to be, and nearly everything as she had found it. Except for one thing. She hoped that she would leave small footprints in the hearts of her friends, and that they would bring smiles. Thank you all."
Then she pivoted to stare at that closed vault. Great-Aunt Martha was gone. The times between her visits had been punctuated by weekly phone calls with her aunt. Now there would be no more calls and it hit her: there was a huge difference between being separated by miles and being separated by death. A huge, aching chasm of a difference.
Cliff Martin watched Holly Heflin with dislike. She was still a pretty sprite, with wavy auburn hair and bright blue eyes. He felt that all too familiar surge of desire for her and had to battle down memories of how her gentle curves had felt in his arms. But too much lay between them for him to like her. While Martha had defended Holly more than once, he had the wounds to show for how she had treated him. A long-ago summer affair, brief, fleeting, had left him an angry man for a long time and convinced him that Holly was as self-centered as a woman could be. Martha's talk of her youth hadn't helped one whit.
Regardless, now he was tied to this woman by Martha, who for reasons he couldn't begin to understand had made him executor of her will. Not that there was a lot to carry out. And there was Holly, a woman even more beautiful than at twenty, now part of his life again whether he liked it or not. He didn't like it.
What had Martha been thinking? He was grateful to her for protecting his leases. It would have killed his ranching operation to give up all that land. But what was with the ten years? And the stuff about Holly following her dream?
Not that he cared about Holly's dreams. Holly's dreams had nearly killed him once. To his way of thinking, she wasn't trustworthy. Maybe Martha felt the same, and had put the leases in her will to ensure Holly didn't kick him off the land. But damn, this was going to be miserable. He needed that woman like he needed a hole in his head.
But for all he had wanted to think Holly was an uncaring witch, nothing could make him believe those tears weren't real.
He didn't get any of this, but he supposed it didn't matter. Martha had gone her own way, quirky and delightful and always surprising. Why should she end her life any differently?
He watched Holly decline to go to the church for a covered-dish supper. Martha had wanted no memorial, but others were going to give it to her anyway. How that would have made her laugh.
But her niece seemed determined to follow her aunt's wishes. He watched her walk to her car, a slender woman with beautiful auburn hair and blue eyes, and thought how utterly alone she looked. And how very sexy. Since those thoughts had gotten him in trouble once before, he clamped down on them hard, and wished them to hell.
No way was he going to fall for that blue-eyed seductress again.
With any luck, Holly Heflin would blow back out of town as fast as she had blown in, taking whatever funds Martha had left her and leaving the ranch to rot. She was a city girl, after all.
He wondered if she'd let the house and barn turn to dust. He certainly wasn't going to do all the maintenance for her as he had done for Martha. He didn't owe her that and she wouldn't even qualify as a neighbor.
Damn, he felt angry for no good reason that he could figure out. He'd had a low opinion about Holly for years, so no shock there. Absolutely no reason to be angry all over again.
Cussing under his breath anyway, he skipped the potluck and headed home. He had a ranch to take care of and only one task remaining as far as Martha went: to take her niece to the bank and see that the accounts got turned over to her.
And, he supposed, to ensure she didn't try to sell the ranch. It didn't look as if she would care, so what the hell.
Trying to get himself into a better mood, he turned on some music on the radio, discovered a sad country song and turned it off again.
Damn, he thought. "Martha, why do I get the feeling you left me a mess and I don't even know how bad it is yet?"
Of course there was no answer.