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The fierce afternoon wind whipped through the landscape like an errant child of Mother Nature, set on doing some damage. Heavy, dark clouds from the north threatened rain, a sure sign that the old lady had not finished her wrath of winter.
Chance Hardin hated March.
And all the agonizing memories it stirred.
He shifted uneasily at the kitchen table on the High Five ranch in High Cotton, Texas, and forced his eyes away from the window. Gripping his warm coffee cup, he stared into its murky depths, seeing a night as dark as the brew inside. Through the blackness the emotions of a twelveyearold boy surfaceda boy whose world had been shattered by loud voices, screamsand death.
On a miserable March night.
Chance felt his stomach twist into a knot as his brothers waited. He'd been avoiding this conversation for twentytwo years. How much longer could he stall?
"Come on, Chance." Cadde was putting on the pressure, just like Chance knew he would. It was part of being an older brother. "You know Dad wanted us to work together."
You didn't really know him.
"Yeah." Cisco, his middle brother, nicknamed Kid, joined in. "The oil business is in our blood. We've all been involved in the industry. Now, thanks to roscoe Murdock, Cadde owns a big part of Shilah Oil. Of course, there were strings attached, but that didn't stop ol' Cadde." Kid slapped Cadde on the back and received a knockout glare in return, that didn't faze him one bit. "Come on, Chance, we can be the bosses, setting the pace and making Shilah Oil one of the best companies in Texas."
Chance raised his head. "Roscoe's daughter, Jessie, owns the biggest part, and she'll be calling the shots."
He didn't know why he felt a need to remind his brothers of that, but the whole inheritance thing was a bit of a shock. Not that Cadde hadn't earned it. He had.
Roscoe had been paranoid about Jessie's safety ever since his niece had been kidnapped and murdered. After the tragedy he'd had Jessie guarded twentyfour hours a day. Cadde had told Chance that Jessie was seven at the time, and now she had to be close to thirty.
Even though she was a fully grown woman, Roscoe didn't let up on his protection of Jessie. On his deathbed he'd made a deal with Cadde, who had been his right hand at Shilah. If Cadde married Jessie and promised to protect her, Roscoe would make him CEO of the oil company and sign over a portion of his shares. Roscoe just forgot to mention that his daughter would inherit the biggest part of Shilah Oil, the company Roscoe and his brother, Al, had started in the forties.
Chance had met Jessie a couple of times when he'd visited Cadde in Houston. She was a petite, darkhaired, darkeyed beauty, and he could see why Cadde had no problem with the arrangement. Not that Chance knew much about itCadde's marriage was his business. He just didn't figure his brother as the marriageofconvenience type. Although Cadde would do anything to further his career in the oil industry. It had been his dream since they were kids.
It had been the dream of their father.
"I can handle Jessie."
Chance came back to the conversation with a start, but kept his emotions in check, as always. Fiddling with his cup, he had to admit that Cadde could probably handle Jessiethe way he handled everything in life, with his confident, candoanything air. Just like Kid, Cadde was unstoppable when he had his mind set on something.
"We need you, Chance. Your skill with the rigs is better than that of anyone I know. I want to try the new drilling techniques on some of the old leases, to give those fields a jump start. You're the man to oversee the job."
Chance swallowed hard. "I'm happy at Southern Cross."
Cadde leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table, his chair making a scraping noise on the tiled floor. "Why don't you just admit that you still blame Kid and me for the accident?"
The kitchen became painfully quiet. Talking about that horrible night was something they never did. The wroughtiron clock on the wall ticked away precious seconds. Aunt Etta moved from the kitchen counter to stand a few feet from the table, a wooden spoon in her grasp just in case she had to break up a fight, much as she had when they were boys.
A hand lightly touched Chance's shouldera gesture from Uncle Rufus, telling him to keep his cool. Their elderly aunt and uncle had taken the Hardin boys in after their parents' tragic deaths, and knew them better than anyone.
"I never blamed you," Chance said clearly and without emotion. That night was too heartbreaking to think about, but he could feel the memory slicing into his brain with a sharp edge of reality. His parents had been returning home to High Cotton from an outoftown basketball game of Cadde's and Cisco's.
Chuck Hardin had pulled two shifts on an oil rig and then had taken his wife and Chance to the game because his sons had wanted him at the state championship. Speculation was he'd fallen asleep at the wheel. Chance knew differently. Dozing in the backseat, he was the only one who'd survived that fatal crash as the car had swerved, left the road and hit a tree. And the only one who knew what had really happened that night.
He planned to take that secret to the grave.
Cadde eased back, his dark eyes pinned on Chance. All three brothers had the deep brown eyes of their father. "You've been different ever since. Distant. Getting anything out of you is like pulling teeth."
Chance didn't squirm. He met Cadde's stare. "Losing one's parents can change a person."
"Yeah," Kid interjected in a nostalgic tone. "We've all changed, but it's time for us to be family againthe Hardin boys taking on the world."
That sounded good to Chance, but he couldn't weaken. Guilt beat at him like a persistent hangover. If he spent more time around his brothers, he wouldn't be able to keep his secret. Telling them would destroy their love and trust of their father, as it had destroyed his. He wouldn't do thatever.
Uncle Rufus stood. In his seventies, bowlegged and a cowboy to the core, Rufus Johns spoke little, but when he did, they listened. He and Aunt Etta had worked for the High Five ranch since they were teenagers, and lived in a small house not far from the big house, as they called the Belle residence on the ranch. Now Rufus, as he'd been many times when they'd lived with him, was again their mediator.
"Your brothers asked you a question. It requires a simple yes or no. What's your answer?"
Chance clenched his jaw and willed himself to relax. "No. I have a good job at Southern Cross and I'm not interested in leaving it for the oil business just yet."
"Damn it." Cadde hit the table with his fist, making the coffee cups rattle.
Aunt Etta tapped his shoulder with her spoon. "You're not too old for me to use this on, you know. Respect your brother's decision. You and Kid can get into enough trouble on your own."
Cadde hooked an arm around Etta's thin waist and pulled her to his side. "Aunt Etta, Chance is missing out on the biggest opportunity of his life."
"That's his choice."
Cadde's words trailed away as fiveyearold Kira Yates burst though the back door, followed by her parents, Skylar and Cooper. Kira eyed the two strangers and edged her way over to Chance. "Look what I drew in school." She handed him the paper. It was a child's drawing of a family.
Chance introduced his brothers to Kira.
"I'm gonna have a brother, too." Kira pointed proudly to the picture.
"I see. Very good."
Kira carried the picture to Etta.
"What a little artist you are." The elderly woman kissed the top of her head. "Miss Dorie is waiting for you in the parlor."
"Gotta go." Kira darted away.
Sky, the youngest Belle daughter and five months pregnant, walked over to the table. "My, my, the Hardin boys are back in town. Lock up your daughters, folks. They can't be trusted."
Kid got to his feet and hugged her. "Dane used to say that all the time." He, Cadde and Chance had grown up with the Belle sisters, and Dane Belle had been like the father they'd lost.
Sky winked. "Especially to his daughters."
Kid rocked back on his heels with the crafty grin of a possum eating honey. "Have no idea why."
Of all the brothers, he hid his pain in humor and romancing the ladies. He was well known for it. Cadde was the driven one, set on making his dream come true. Chance, on the other hand, buried himself behind a veil of secrecy. The accident had affected all their lives, one way or another.
Cadde rose and hugged Sky and shook Cooper's hand. "I heard you're the owner of High Five now." When Cooper had allowed himself to fall in love with Sky, he'd decided to stay in High Cotton forever, so he'd approached Caitlyn and Maddie, the other two sisters, with an offer they couldn't refuse.
"Yep, and I heard you're the owner of an oil company." Cadde, Cooper and Judd Calhoun, owner of Southern Cross, were about the same age and had gone to school together, along with Maddie's husband, Walker. High Cotton was a closeknit community of family and friends.
Cadde nodded. "I guess we've grown up."
"Sobering, isn't it?" Cooper replied, while shaking Kid's hand. "Still riding shotgun?" Cadde and Kid were fourteen months apart, and so close, people often thought they were twins. The humorous Kid always kept the deep and brooding Cadde in line with his antics, or more accurately, kept him on his toes.
"Yeah." Kid's infectious grin widened. "Someone has to keep an eye on Cadde or he gets a little too intense."
"Daddy, Mommy," Kira called from the parlor. "Gran's waiting. We're having a tea party." Dorthea Belle was the matriarch of the family and everyone loved her. Just as her son, Dane had, she made the orphaned Hardin boys feel like family.
"This could take a while." Cooper delivered the words with a Texassize smile. Family suited the man. "Stay as long as you want and visit."
As Cooper left, Chance reached for his hat. "I've got to get back. Judd and Cait are gone for a week and I don't want to stay away too long."
"Damn." Kid snapped his fingers. "I was hoping to see Caitlyn."
Chance sighed. "You can't flirt with her like you used to or Judd will give you a kingsize headache."
Kid shook his head. "Can't believe she finally married him."
Caitlyn was the oldest Belle daughter and Kid had always hit on her. Hell, he hit on all the sistersthat was his nature. He never met a woman he didn't like. The Belles never missed a chance to set him straight. They'd lived so close they were like brothers and sistersand they'd fought like siblings. Cait would vow never to speak to Kid again. In the next instant they'd be racing their horses to the general store, or off across the nearest pasture, argument forgotten.
Chance had thought that Cait would never leave the place of her birth, but love was a powerful force. Her marrying her archenemy from the neighboring ranch came as a surprise to everyone, except Chance and her sisters. Since her teens, Cait had been in love with Judd, but it had taken years for them to work out their differences.
Even though Chance and Cait talked a lot, he'd never told her his secret. He'd never told anyone.
"Give it a rest, Kid," Cadde said. "You were never serious about any of the Belles. They were family."
"That's what made it so much fun," he replied with that silly grin. "They knew I wasn't serious. You know how Caitlyn is when she's mad? With just a frown, she can make a grown man take ten steps backward without even thinking or blinking. Hell, I had fun getting her angry."
Etta gave him a strange look. "Sometimes I worry about you, boy."
Kid hugged her. "Ah, Aunt Etta, I'm just joking. You know me. I'd never touch one of Dane's daughters. Hell, he'd have killed me, but that didn't keep me from teasing them."
"Yeah." She pointed a finger in his face. "You leave the girls alone. They're happily married, with babies."
"Pay no attention to him, Aunt Etta," Cadde told her. "He's always about a pint short on his blood supply."
"Now wait a minute "
Cadde ignored Kid and turned to Chance. "The offer is still on the table. Think it over. We want you with us."
Chance nodded and walked out. As he got into his truck, he couldn't deny that the offer was tempting. When they were younger, their father would say he didn't want them toiling in the oil fields all their lives like he had. That as brothers working together, they could accomplish anythingbe the bosses, not hands. That's why Chance never saw what was to comethe horrible truth. The man who'd spouted family values, loyalty and love was a phony. His other two sons still idolized him. So how could Chance destroy that illusion?