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Amanda Allen pulled into a space in front of the Coffee Crossing, one of several businesses occupying the ground floor of a turn-of-the-century hotel across from an old train station. The place looked renovated, clean from the vintage red bricks to the newly grouted black and white tiles leading to the concrete steps. The shining windows sported a gold and black coffee cup logo and a very welcome sign in the cornerfree Wi-Fi.
She breathed a sigh of relief. Being without internet access for two days was causing her more withdrawal than most people experienced by skipping their morning coffee.
She reached back between the seats of her Subaru wagon and pulled her laptop out of its tote bag. She'd charged up her "baby" last night and was ready to get down to business. Two online auctions were ending in less than an hour, and she was expecting some lively bidding on a vintage Felix clock.
Maybe a latte and some surfing would take her mind off her real reason for being in Brody's Crossing. She had one week, maximum, to accomplish her goal: meet her brothers. Men she'd never met and who didn't even know she existed. If she didn't tell them in person that their mother had secretly given birth to a baby girl when she had been in Arkansas staying with family, they would find outin dispassionate legalesefrom a lawyer in Oregon.
That's not the way she would want to discover she had a sibling, and she didn't expect her brothers would, either.
She opened the car door to bright sun and a brisk, cool wind. The prairie stretched out around her, rolling into hills and a few rugged mesas to the north. Why did people love this land? What made them come to Texas, build a life here?
What made them leave it? Abruptly. Absolutely.
She shook away the thought, locked her car and hurried up the steps. To her left an open door to a bookstore invited passersby to come in and browse. Maybe later. As she entered the Coffee Crossing, the smell of darkly roasted beans and steamed milk curled around her like a warm blanket. She paused a moment, nearly shuddering at the familiar feeling within a new, strange place.
Was this what home would always smell like for hera coffee shop? Or would she find another place that evoked the same feeling of belonging? Ever since her mother's death, years ago, she'd wondered where home would be. Not here, even though Brody's Crossing was the place she would have grown up if her mother hadn't kept her a secret.
She decided on a table by the window so she could bask in the afternoon sunlight and watch who came in.
"What can I get you?" the young, red-haired barista asked. Her name tag identified her as Riley.
Amanda put her laptop and keys on the table. "A large double vanilla latte, please. Two percent if you have it."
"Sure do," the barista said as she reached for the ground coffee. "Are you new in town?"
"Just passing through." Sort of. "I'll be here a few days, doing some research. I read about a vintage motel."
"Oh, yeah. The Sweet Dreams Motel. It's great." A familiar steam hiss filled the air, along with the strong smell of espresso. "It used to be the pits, but it's been fixed up for over a year now."
"Is it close by?"
"Yes. Go to the farmers' market around the corner, turn left and then turn right on Main Street. It's just a few blocks out on your left. You can't miss it."
"Great. I look forward to checking it out. I'm going to use your Wi-Fi for a while."
"Sure. We're kind of new and we aren't too busy in the afternoon. Are you a writer?"
"Sometimes. I'm basically a researcher. Vintage items, genealogy, things like that." Not that the refurbished motel had anything to do with her reason for being in Brody's Crossing.
Hopefully the place wasn't too expensive. She really didn't want to sleep in her car, although she'd done that more than once while traveling.
Amanda paid for the latte and went back to her table. She checked her email, then the online auctions. Drawn against her will, she opened her family tree program and looked at all the names she'd filled in the pedigree chart.
Crawfords and Allens. And many more names going back generations that she'd discovered on genealogy websites.
Her family. She didn't know a single living one of them on her father'sthe Crawfordsside, and only a few on her mother's. The Allens lived in Arkansas and she wrote or emailed her second cousins occasionally.
"What happened, Mom?" she whispered as she touched the screen where the name Luanna Allen resided, forever linked to Calvin Crawford. Amanda had scanned in the photos of her late mother and father, plus portraits of her two brothers as teens, so they showed up as tiny images next to the names.
"Hi. Am I interrupting?"
Amanda jumped, almost giving in to the urge to slam her laptop closed. She looked up, way up, to the classic, smiling face of a truly awesome, golden-haired man. He wore a neatly pressed denim shirt with a logo. Brody's Crossing Hardware. The shirt was tucked into darker jeans that fit him as though they were custom-made for his tall, athletic body.
He did not appear to be the type of man who minded that he was interrupting her time on the computer. Or would think a woman would mind the interruption. In her experience, men like him did not frequent small town coffee shops.
And then a weird thought entered her head. A blond man in Brody's Crossing could be her brother. Not that this man seemed old enough to be either Cal or Troy Crawford, but the idea was kind of creepy.
"I was nearly finished." She closed the genealogy program and clicked on her browser, just in case he was really nosy and looked at her screen. "So you're only interrupting a little."
He smiled before taking a sip from his large cup, totally ignoring her slightly snarky comment. A heavy gold ring with Roman numerals flashed in the sunlight. "Isn't Wi-Fi great? We have it throughout the building. I'm Leo Casale, by the way. I live upstairs."
He's not a Crawford. "Amanda Allen."
Leo Casale pulled out a chair and sat down, without her invitation. "So let me guess why you're here, Amanda Allen." He narrowed his eyes and gave her such a thorough once-over that she wondered if he had X-ray vision. "You must be a writer. A freelancer. And you're on deadline."
"I have deadlines, so I'd say you're close to being right."
"Yeah? I'm being a little pushy, hmm? It's just not that common to see a cute new girl in town."
"Really?" You think I'm cute? She was usually described as "spunky," which always made her feel like a snippy little terrier. The kind that chased bigger dogs and barked at cars passing by.
"So you're not a writer?"
"I'm doing some genealogy research for someone." She'd gone over her cover story a hundred times in her head. She'd given herself a fictional client who might have relatives in the area. That way, she could ask questions without anyone getting suspicious. "I also sell on eBay and other websites. I look for great bargains for online auctionsvintage items and things like that. And I occasionally write freelance travel and trash-to-treasure articles."
"Wow, you are busy."
She shrugged. "I make a living." Not a good one, but she wasn't in debt, either.
"You're not from around here, are you? I don't hear any accent, which probably means Midwest or West Coast."
"Oregon. I'm only going to be here a few days."
"Business or pleasure?"
"Mostly business." She took a sip of her latte. "What about you, Leo Casale? Are you from around here?"
"Most of my life. I live upstairs now." He gestured up the staircase with his coffee cup.
"I didn't realize there were apartments here." She'd read about the old hotel retail renovation on the Brody's Crossing website. Repurposing the space seemed a good solution since they didn't have passenger trains coming through here any longer.
"Condos, actually. We just finished them."
"I'm involved in the project with my sister and another investor. My sister has a remodeling company. I run the hardware store in town."
Her email reminder dinged, letting her know the online auction was nearing an end. She glanced at her laptop. "I need to check this."
"Sure. I should get back to the store anyway." He turned up the wattage of his smile. "It was nice talking to you, Amanda. I'll see you around."
He turned and walked toward the door, then glanced back at her. She wascurse her weak-willed sensibilitiesstill watching him. As he probably knew. Men who looked that good just had to be superconfident.
"Come by the store when you're out and about," he said. "I can give you some ideas for hunting the best bargains."
"Really? You don't look like the bargain hunter type."
"Yeah? Well, you never know. Maybe I have hidden talents."
I'll just bet you do. "I appreciate the offer."
It took a lot of willpower to concentrate on the Felix clock auction instead of watching Leo Casale walk out of the building. Two bidders really wanted that clock. Great. She could use every extra dollar, especially if she were to stay in the motel for several days.
"Leo was totally flirting with you," the barista said.
"Leo. I think he's into you."
"Oh, I don't know"
"Really, I think so. I've known him for a while. He's a very friendly guy, but he is interested. You should go by the store later, for sure."
"I have a lot to do."
"Believe me, it's not as important as seeing Leo again. He's hot."
Yes, I noticed. "He seems very welcoming." The timer dinged again. Amanda looked down to see the clock had gone for a little over thirty dollars. Pretty good for a two dollar investment at a garage sale in Idaho. Another auction was ending in half an hour, but for now, maybe she could focus on her other issue.
"Have you lived here long?" Amanda asked the barista.
"Most of my life."
"I'll bet you know everyone." She put her computer on hibernate, then closed the top to conserve the battery. "Well, a lot of them."
Amanda ran her hands along the edge of her laptop.
"I read about a ranch here that has bison and uses organic farming practices."
"That's the Rocking C. It's weird to drive by and see so many buffalo in the pasture. It's a whole herd, like in a movie or something."
"Ah, yes. The Rocking C. Is the family kind of eccentric?"
"No, not really. One of the brothers married a woman from New Hampshire and they live there now. I think she's a vegetarian, and that's kind of different, but the other brother who lives on the ranch is a regular guy. He was in the army. Got wounded and everything. Now he's married and has two kids."
"Really?" So, she was an aunt. And her brother had been woundedhow badly? But to ask the barista any more questions about the Crawfords would probably seem suspicious.
"Thanks. Maybe I'll drive out there and see the bison."
Yes, she should. And she would. She definitely would.
"And don't forget the hardware store."
She checked into the Sweet Dreams Motel after the second eBay auction ended, which netted her a nice profit on an old Kodak camera she'd found at a thrift store back in Portland. Her motel room was vintage Western, with knotty pine furniture, a cowboy lamp and colorful camp blankets on the bed. Even the bathroom vanity had been faced with rough boards and Western-themed fixtures. The clerk had given her the choice of Hollywood glam or cowboy chic, and she'd chosen the latter to get into the feel of Texas. She'd never been to the state before. And if her brothers weren't happy to discover they had a sister, she would probably never be back.
By the time she brought her suitcases and merchandise inside and boxed the items up for mailing, the sun was sinking low in the sky. She decided to go to dinner instead of trying to get to a post office by five o'clock.
The manager suggested the cafe downtown or Dewey's Saloon and Steakhouse, just a little ways outside Brody's Crossing. Since she'd already driven over three hundred miles today, Amanda decided to try the cafe tonight and have a simple, inexpensive meal. The motel was costing her plenty.
Streetlamps began to flicker on as she pulled into a spot just down Commerce Street, almost at the corner where the old hotel was located. Where she'd met Leo Casale.
She shook her head as she walked down the sidewalk to the restaurant. Thinking of a good-looking local guy when she should be concentrating on the Crawfords wasn't smart. She'd come to Brody's Crossing to find her family, not a man who was a natural flirt and probably way too impressed with himself.
Well, if she were as beautiful a woman as he was an attractive man, she might be more impressed with herself, too. She wasn't ugly, just not drop dead gorgeous. She wasn't a vibrant blonde or a luscious brunette. She was just average. A brown haired, blue-gray eyed twenty-six-year-old woman who possessed a car, a cell phone, a laptop and a variety of skills that kept a roof over her head and food on the table.
And she was damned proud of the fact that she could take care of herself. If she'd grown up in a different household if she'd had two supportive parents instead of one slightly unstable one perhaps she wouldn't have been so independent and versatile.
That didn't mean she had no desire to meet her only living family members, the sons her mother had deserted years ago. She needed to tell them the truth before they found out from a lawyer who had no personal interest in the Crawford family.
The cafe smelled like comfort food. Hot biscuits, gravy, pot roast and mashed potatoes. A blast of cool air surrounded her as she inhaled deeply. Mmm. The smell was almost as good as a coffeehouse. With any luck, she'd get some more information and a good meal.
Most of the vinyl booths were taken, as well as some of the round counter stools. Amanda made her way past the please-be-seated sign to an empty table where she could people-watch.
Several couples and families were at the cafe, but none of them looked as if they might be her brother with his wife and children. Of course, she was basing that assessment on an old photograph she'd found in her mother's dresser after she'd passed away.
Cal Jr., her older brother, appeared very stern, almost as if he resented sitting for the portrait. The younger brother, Troy, barely a teenager, looked somewhat more friendly, with an easy smile. Once their mother had mentioned that she'd always been closer to Troy because Cal was so much like their father. Amanda sure hoped he'd changed over the years. Luanna had missed her sons, but Amanda never did sense that her mother had missed being a wife to Calvin Crawford.