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The bus stopped in front of a worn-down cafe, a neon beer sign in the window flickering with the only color Cameron Quinn had seen in the past two hundred miles. "Home-cooked meals," he murmured as he stared at the sign. At least Vulture Creek, New Mexico, had one thing going for it. From what he'd seen so far, the place was a dusty crossroad, somewhere on the way to Albuquerque.
He grabbed his leather duffel from the rack above his head and walked to the front of the bus, the aisle clear. None of the other passengers had chosen this destination, and after seeing the town out the window, he figured they could count themselves lucky. They were obviously on their way to more glamorous locations, like Santa Fe and Amarillo and Tulsa. A few passengers were even headed to Roswell to take in the "alien" experience.
Cameron knew exactly how those aliens felt, dropping down into a barren, almost lifeless world.
He'd come from Seattle, where it rained almost every day of the year and where green, not brown, was the predominant color. He stepped off the bus and squinted up at the turquoise sky, shading his eyes with his hand. It was the only sight that assured him he was still on planet earth.
Moments later, the bus pulled away in a cloud of dust and diesel fumes. This would be home for the next six weeks, this desolate spot that looked more like the surface of the moon than a habitable location.
Why had his grandfather picked Vulture Creek? The name alone was enough to scare away most people. The challenge had been simplein theory. His grandfather had sent his four grandsons to strange corners of the country on a quest of sortsa quest to find out who they really were and where they belonged. Dermot was somewhere in Wisconsin, Kieran in Tennessee, Ronan in Maine, and Cameron, the eldest of the four, was banished to the middle of nowhere.
For six weeks, they were supposed carve out an existence for themselves, away from the family business and familiar surroundings. In theory, he understood his grandfather's motives. He and his brothers had worked for the family business, Quinn Yachtworks, since shortly after their parents went missing, pitching in to do anything to make the business succeed. There hadn't really been a choice in the matter; they'd just done it to repay their grandfather for taking them in and to stave off the grief that hung over the family like a dark cloud.
But now it was time to decide the fate of the successful company they'd helped build. An attractive offer to buy the business had come along from an interested party, and Martin Quinn had a decision to makeleave the business to his grandsons or sell and retire in luxury.
Cameron had never really thought twice about what he did for a living. He'd felt obligated to work at the family business, and he enjoyed his position as head of the design team. It suited his artistic inclinations and paid welland it was interesting work.
It also suited his personality. He liked the solitary pursuit of the perfect design. He was in control; he made the decisions. It was a quiet life, a controlled life and one that he'd grown quite accustomed to. There were never any surprises.
So it wasn't any wonder he thought this "vacation" was an exercise in futility. Cameron knew exactly where he belonged and what he was meant to do. He knew it from the moment he became head of his family, from the day his parents had officially been proclaimed dead. It had been his responsibility to watch over his younger brothers, to make their life with their grandfather work.
Sure, he'd had other dreams. When he was a kid, he'd wanted to become a paleontologist, like the hero in Jurassic Park. He'd fantasized about exotic locations and complicated digs, of discoveries that would turn history upside down. But he put those dreams aside for the greater good of his family.
According to their grandfather's plan, after six weeks, he and his brothers were to return home. If they wanted to make a commitment to the company, they could. If they wanted to carve out a new life somewhere else, then all would be well. If they all chose a different life, then they'd share in the profits from the sale and build something new for themselves.
He crossed the street to the diner. He'd have a decent meal, check out the town and then buy a bus ticket for the nearest civilized city. After all, Vulture Creek was neither a hotbed of employment opportunities nor a glamorous vacation destination. Surely his grandfather didn't expect him to live here for six weeks. He'd bide his time someplace more comfortable.
As he opened the door of the diner, a pickup truck slowly passed by. From beneath the brim of a battered cowboy hat, the driver watched Cameron with a suspicious glare. Cameron gave him a nod, but the man didn't acknowledge the greeting. "Hospitable place," he muttered to himself.
A bell above the door rang as Cameron entered the cafe. Fans hung from the high ceilings, turning slowly yet doing nothing to freshen the air. A small crowd of people was gathered around tables near the window, the remains of their breakfast still scattered in front of them. They were laughing and arguing, but Cameron ignored them and sat down at the empty counter. He glanced to the back of the diner and saw a woman sitting in a booth near the door to the kitchen, talking on her cell phone.
He relaxed on the stool and grabbed a menu, studying the prices. He had about six dollars left in cash and a pocketful of change. But his grandfather had given them all a company credit card to use, as well. He'd pull that out for lunch and then find a cheap motel room with a hot shower and a soft bed.
A middle-aged woman stepped through the swinging door, a coffeepot in her hand. She strolled up to him and set a cup in front of him. Her blue blouse was embroidered with her nameMillie.
Cameron shook his head. It was too hot to drink coffee. "Ice water," he said. "The biggest glass you have."
"Breakfast specials are Denver omelet, blueberry waffles, and steak and eggs," she said, observing him with a keen eye. "Lunch specials are pork enchiladas and a meat-loaf plate. We also have chicken-dumpling soup and grasshopper pie made fresh this morning. What can I get you?"
Cameron glanced at the clock above the counter. Though it was only eleven, he really didn't feel much like breakfast. "I'll have the meat loaf," Cameron said. "With fries. And the soup. Do you have beer on tap?"
"Give me a bottle of your best. And you take credit cards?"
"MasterCard and Visa," she said.
She returned with his beer and poured it into a glass mug that looked like a cowboy boot. Cameron took a long, slow sip of it. He glanced over at the booth and silently observed the woman he'd noticed earlier. His breath caught in his throat as she turned slightly, and he coughed, the beer going down his windpipe.
Her battered straw cowboy hat had hidden her features, but she'd tipped her chin up to reveal a stunning profile. He found himself staring at her mouth as she spoke. She was younger than he'd originally thought, in her mid-twenties. And there was something different about her, something slightly exotic. His mind drifted as he thought about that mouth, the lush lips, wondering if the rest of her body was as tantalizingly sexy.
When she hung up the phone, he turned his attention back to his beer, watching her in the reflection of the mirror behind the counter. He held his breath, waiting for her to move. But when he noticed a distinct limp in her gait, he glanced back down at his beer, uneasy with his reaction to her handicap.
Though he felt sorry for her, nothing as insignificant as a limp could erase the image of perfection he found when he considered her beautiful features and her slender body. To his surprise, she sat down a few seats away and dropped her cowboy hat on the counter.
"Millie, I'm gonna grab myself a coffee," she called toward the kitchen door, tucking a strand of raven hair behind her ear. She circled around the end of the counter and picked up a cup, then filled it from the pot.
God, she was beautiful, Cameron mused. This was the last place on earth he expected to find an interesting woman, and this one elicited more curiosity in him than any woman he'd seen in the past five years. She was clad in faded jeans and a baggy cham-bray shirt, not the typical fashions for the women he usually lusted after. Dusty cowboy boots completed the look.
She took a sip of her coffee, staring straight ahead. Cameron grabbed the opportunity to take in the details of her face. High cheekbones and dark eyes betrayed a Native American heritage, but there was something else there, something that softened her stunning features just a bit.
"Is it considered polite to stare at people where you come from?" she asked, her gaze still fixed on the coffeepot. She slowly turned and gave him a cool look, her raven eyebrow raised quizzically.
"Sorry," Cameron murmured. "I've just been stuck on a bus for the past few days with nothing interesting to look at." He chuckled softly. "And you're the absolute last thing I thought I'd see in this place."
"And what exactly am I?"
"Interesting," he murmured. Cameron took another sip of his beer. "Sorry. I'll keep my eyes to myself."
She turned away, as if embarrassed by the compliment. "You have been on a bus too long," she said.
A long silence grew between them as they both stared straight ahead, enjoying their drinks.
"What are you doing in Vulture Creek?" she asked.
"It's a long story."
"Where are you from?"
"Seattle," he said. "Washington."
"I know where Seattle is," she said with a smile.
"Of course you do," he said. For someone who didn't want to be noticed, she sure was trying awfully hard to strike up a conversation. Cameron had never been an expert at small talk, but just this once, it might be nice to make an effort. "Do you live around here?"
She seemed to be understandably suspicious of him. "Around," she replied.
"That's a little vague," he said. "Around here? Around New Mexico? Around the Southwest?"
"Albuquerque," she said.
"And what are you doing in Vulture Creek?" he asked.
She smiled. "It's a long story." Cameron chuckled softly. "Well, that does it, then. I've found someone who is worse at small talk than I am. Maybe we should just stop talking altogether before we bore each other to death."
She shrugged. "Fine by me. You're the one who started the conversation."
"Actually, you were the first one to speak, as I recall. I was just staring."
"Well, I'm done speaking. Starting now."
Millie appeared a few minutes later with Cameron's lunch. She set the plate in front of him, then nodded toward his empty mug. "Another beer?"
"Sure," Cameron said as he dug into his meal.
Millie turned to the woman sitting next to him. "What can I get for you, Sofie? Breakfast or lunch?"
"The meat loaf is good," Cameron said between bites. Sofie. Was that short for Sofia? The name suited her, he thought to himself. Sofia, the dark, exotic beauty with the lush mouth and the sparkling eyes.
"I'll have a grilled-cheese and a cup of soup," Sofie said.
"Can I get you anything else?" Millie asked Cameron.
"A job. Do you know of anyone who's looking to hire? I need work. And a place to stay."
She nodded toward the group sitting at the tables near the front of the diner. "You could talk to the professor over there," she said. "He has a dinosaur dig out in the desert. They're always looking for help."
Cameron gasped. "Really. A dig?" He shook his head in disbelief. Was this why his grandfather had sent him to Vulture Creek? Did he know about the dig?
"They don't pay," Sofie said. "Other than meals. They're looking for volunteers."
"Aren't you looking for someone, Sofie?" Millie asked.
"No," Sofie said.
"Sure you are. You mentioned it yesterday. I distinctly remember you saying you didn't have enough eyes or ears to cover all the ground you needed to. I do believe those were your words."
"What kind of work do you do?" Cameron asked.
"She's a private investigator," Millie said. "Working on a big case." The waitress wandered back to the kitchen, leaving Sofie and Cameron with another uncomfortable silence.
Cameron sighed softly. Though the dinosaur dig was intriguing, he'd have to find a way to make some real money. And if Sofie, the private investigator, had a job, then he ought to explore that option. Who knew if there would even be other opportunities in Vulture Creek?
"So do you or don't you have a job you're looking to fill?"
Millie set a cup of soup in front of Sofie. "Maybe you ought to interview him. He looks like a clever young man." She winked at Cameron. "Careful, now. If you have any secrets, she'll find a way to get them out of you."
Cameron stifled a smile. Actually, that sounded like a lot of fun. Though he wasn't much of a conversationalist, he was enjoying the back-and-forth with Sofie. Beneath that cool, composed exterior, Cameron suspected there was a fiery, passionate woman. He was curious to catch a glimpse of that side of her.
"Why are you here?" Sofie asked.
Cameron wiped his hands with his napkin and swallowed the mouthful of meat loaf. "I'm here because my grandfather sent me here. I'm supposed to take the next six weeks to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life."
"Why would you need to do that?"
"My grandfather owns the family business. I work there. He needs to make some decisions about the future of that business. He wants us all to be sure of where we want to be."
"Me and my three brothers. We all work for the company."
"What do you do? I mean, for a job?" she replied.
"I design sailing yachts," he said.
Sofie laughed and nodded to Millie. "Well, we have a lot of sailing yachts here in the desert," she said. "I really don't think I have"
"Sofie," Cameron said.
She stopped talking and watched him warily.
"I'm a smart guy. I'm pretty sure I can handle whatever you send my way. Why don't you give me a chance? If it doesn't work out, you can fire me."