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Lucas Clayton could have driven down the streets of his hometown blindfolded.
The thought was tempting.
Because not even a moonless night and the light snow sifting onto the windshield of his pickup could conceal the silhouettes of the businesses that sagged against each other in a tired line along Railroad Street.
Jones Feed and Supply. The grocery store. The post office.
Each building held more than just sacks of grain or canned goods or stamps. Each one held a memory. Or two.
Or a hundred.
The town of Clayton, Colorado might have been named after one of his dusty ancestors, but Lucas had never taken any pride in that. Growing up, having the last name Clayton had only been one more expectation weighing him down. One more invisible shackle holding him in place.
Lucas had broken free at eighteen and left home with a beat-up canvas duffel bag, a chip on his shoulder as solid as a chunk of rock hewn from the Rockies themselves and a vow never to return.
As he traveled from job to job, eventually landing in Georgia, both the duffel bag and the chip on his shoulder had remained constant companions.
But now, after seven years, he'd broken the vow.
Not that he'd had a choice.
His grandfather, George Clayton Sr., had passed away during the summer, leaving behind a will that had caused new splits in an already fractured family. George's brother, Samuel, and his offspring had made life unbearable for years, but they stood to inherit everythingif Lucas and his five cousins didn't satisfy the conditions of the will.
That didn't surprise him. Leave it to good old Grandpa George to attempt to control people's lives from the gravehe'd certainly made a habit of it while he'd been alive. As a lawyer, George Clayton had a reputation for being ruthless, manipulative and self-serving. As a grandfather, he hadn't been a whole lot better.
Lucas still couldn't believe his cousins had agreed to put their lives on hold and return to Clayton for a whole year. But he was the last one to return.
Lucas hadn't exactly had a choice about that, either.
A promise made to a dying friend had taken him to places that no sane person would have chosen to go, but loyalty to his sister had brought him back to Clayton.
Cruising through the lone signal light at the intersection, Lucas saw a soft glow in one of the windows farther down the street.
He didn't even have to read the faded sign above the door to know which one it was. The Cowboy Cafe.
Lucas struggled against a memory that fought its way to the surface. And lost.
An image of a girl's face materialized in front of him, clear as a photograph. A heart-shaped face. Hair that glowed like the embers in a campfire, shades of bronze and copper lit with strands of gold. Wide brown eyes that had a disconcerting tendency to see straight into his soul.
Lucas's fingers bit into the steering wheel.
He couldn't think about Erin Fields.
Wouldn't think about her.
She'd made her choice. Before he'd left, Lucas had asked Erin to go with him but she'd refused, choosing loyalty to her family over her love for him.
Maybe she'd been willing to put her dreams and her future on hold, but Lucas knew he wouldn't have a future if he stayed in Clayton. The confines of the small town would have served as a mold, shaping him into somethingsomeonehe didn't want to be.
Vern Clayton, medical missionary and well-respected pillar of the church and the community, had died in a car accident when Lucas was a teenager, but his mother had insisted he follow in his father's footsteps by serving God and becoming a doctor.
Instead, Lucas had turned his back on both.
Disappointing people seemed to be his gift.
As if to underscore the point, an image of Erin's tear-streaked face returned. He could almost feel the touch of her hand on his.
I'll always love you, Lucas. And I'll wait for you. Lucas pushed the memory aside.
He'd be crazy to think Erin had stayed true to the promise she'd made that night. They'd been kids. That kind of vow didn't stand the test of time.
From his experience, not a whole lot did.
Turning onto a side street, he pulled up to the third house on the left. Completely dark. Lucas hadn't expected a welcoming committeeespecially when he hadn't told his mother or Mei the exact date of his arrival.
Lucas's fingers curled around the keys in the ignition, fighting the temptation to shift the truck into Drive and take off into the night. The way he had seven years ago
A soft rustle came from the backseat.
Twisting around, Lucas summoned what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "It's okay, Max."
A pair of hazel eyes blinked at him from the shadows. "Daddy?" came the sleepy response.
Lucas's throat tightened, preventing him from responding.
Not that he even knew how to respond.
For the past few months, he'd provided the little boy with food and shelter. The basic necessities. What he hadn't been able to give Max Cahill was the thing he needed the most. His parents.
What were you thinking, Scott?
His former college roommate hadn't been. That was the problem. Scott's addictions had led him down a path that had ultimately cost him his lifeand if Lucas hadn't stepped in, the life of an innocent child.
Max lifted his arms toward Lucas and grinned. "We gettin' out now?"
Lucas shook his head. They'd been on the road for more than forty-eight hours and yet his pint-size passenger, who recently turned four, somehow managed to display a more cheerful disposition than the driver.
"Yup. We're getting out now."
"French fries?" Max stifled a yawn even as his eyes brightened with hope.
"I can't make any promises, buddy." And there we have it, Lucas thought. Another one of his flaws exposed.
A raw December wind stung Lucas's face as he hopped out of the truck cab. The crisp temperatures and falling snow felt almost surreal after traipsing through the Florida Everglades, dodging the men who had killed Scott Cahill. Unbuckling the booster seat, he scooped Max into his arms, blankets and all.
The boy burrowed against him and Lucas felt a familiar burst of panic. The one that gripped him whenever Max turned to him for comfort.
Lucas anchored Max against his chest with one arm while fishing for the spare house key his mom always stashed behind the mailbox. Before he had a chance to slide it into the lock, the porch light came on.
He had only a second to react before the front door swung open and a petite, dark haired whirlwind launched herself at him.
"Lucas! You're home."
"Home," came a muffled chirp from inside the cocoon of blankets.
Mei's astonished gaze dropped to the quilt. Lucas could see the question in his adopted sister's ebony eyes and knew exactly what she was thinking.
He'd given Jack McCord, his sister's new love who'd tracked him down in Florida, permission to offer the family an abbreviated version of what he'd gone through to retrieve Max from the thugs who'd snatched him away from his dying father during a drug deal gone bad. But judging from the expression on Mei's face, they had expected Lucas to return to Clayton alone.
And why wouldn't they? an inner voice mocked him.
He'd been MIA for years, communicating with his family through emails and the occasional phone call. That way, he stayed in control of the relationships.
It was a little unsettling to admit that maybe, just maybe, he and Grandpa George had something in common other than their DNA.
"Hey, Erin, I'm supposed to let you know that we're getting a little low on ground beef."
Erin Fields jumped at the sound of a voice behind her.
She pasted on a smile to cover the guilty look on her face before turning around to face Kylie Jones. Which was a little ridiculous, given the fact that it wasn't a crime to be caught putting on your coat.
Unless it was the middle of the day.
And your name was Erin Fields.
Kylie zeroed in on the coat clutched in her hands. And then her gaze shifted to the clock on the wall.
"The lunch crowd is thinning out so I thought I'd leave early," Erin explained.
"You're leaving. Early." The waitress repeated, her green eyes widening in disbelief.
Maybe because Erin never left early. As the owner of the cafe, she was the first one to arrive in the morning and the last one to leave at night.
"Only a few hours." Erin winced at the defensiveness that crept into her tone.
She never got defensive, either.
Kylie tipped her head. The movement sent a tumble of light brown curls over one shoulder. "Is everything all right?" she asked hesitantly. "You've been a little distracted lately."
Lately being the past forty-eight hours, Erin thought. And if pressed, she could take it a step further and pinpoint the exact moment it had started. When she'd overheard a customer casually mention that Lucas Clayton was back in town.
As much as Erin had both dreamed of and dreaded the possibility of that happening, nothing had prepared her for the reality.
Lucas. In Clayton. For a year.
Erin knew all about the conditions of George Sr.'s will.
It had been the talk of the town since July. One by one, the Clayton cousins had returned to their rootsall except Lucas.
Every time the bells above the door of the cafe jingled, Erin's nerves would jingle right along with them. It didn't matter that the logical side of her brain knew he wouldn't seek her out. When it came to Lucas Clayton, the hopeful side had always prevailed.
Which proved she still hadn't learned her lesson.
Which, in turn, made her pathetic.
Harboring feelings for a guy who'd claimed to be in love with herand then left without a backward glance.
Erin was tempted to confide in Kylie, but even now, after all these years, it felt as if she would be breaking a promise. At Lucas's request they'd kept their high-school romance a secret from friends and family. He'd claimed he didn't want his reputation to cast a shadow on her and Erin had reluctantly agreed, afraid her mother wouldn't approve of her dating that "wild Clayton boy."
Even when the truth about their relationship would have squelched the malicious rumor that Vincent Clayton, Lucas's cousin, had started about him and Susie Tansley, Lucas had held Erin to that promise. That's when she'd started to wonder if there was another reason he had insisted on keeping their relationship a secret. A reason that had more to do with his being ashamed of her than some of the things he'd done
Kylie snapped her fingers two inches from Erin's nose. "See what I mean? Distracted..''
"I'm fine. Really." Even as she said the words, Erin wondered who she was trying to convince. Kylie? Or herself? "It's Diamond I'm worried about. She seemed a little agitated this morning before I left for work, and she's due to drop her foal any day now. I'd feel better if I checked on her." It was the truthand a legitimate reason to escape the memories pressing down on her.
"You're such a softie." Kylie chuckled. "You treat those animals of yours like children."
Erin knew her friend was teasing but the words still stung. She was twenty-five years old. Her friends were either engaged or already married and starting a family, something she'd always dreamed of.
For Kylie's benefit, Erin mustered a smile. "So, I'll leave everything in your capable hands for a few hours."
Kylie reeled her in for a quick hug. "Don't worry about coming back to close up. I'll take care of it."
"We got six hours 'til then." A gravelly voice snarled from the kitchen. "So how about you take care of the orders piling up in here before you talk about shutting the place down for the night?"
"Be right there, Jerome," Kylie sang out. Lowering her voice, she winked at Erin over her shoulder. "From the way that man carries on, you'd think he's the one who signs my paychecks, not you."
The two women exchanged a grin. Everyone in town knew the old cook's bark was worse than his bite.
"I'll see you tomorrow, then." Erin shrugged on her coat and shook her ponytail free from the sheepskin collar. "And Kylie thanks."
"No problem. Zach is meeting me here after he gets off work. He claims he can't pass up one of Gerald and Jerome's famous barbecue rib dinners, but I have a hunch he wants to keep an eye on me." Kylie's expression clouded. "Now that Lucas is back in town, Zach thinks it's going to rile up Vincent and the rest of his family even more."
Erin kept her expression neutral, although her heart plummeted at the mention of Lucas's name. "Samuel's side of the family has always enjoyed causing trouble," she murmured.
"You're telling me." Kylie couldn't suppress a shudder. "I almost married into it. I thank God every day that He saved me from making a huge mistakeand brought Zach into my life."
So did Erin. Zach Clayton, the second of the cousins to return to Clayton after the reading of the will, treated Kylie the way she deserved to be treated. With love and respect.
Unlike Vincent, who Kylie had caught kissing another woman on the day they were supposed to exchange their vows.
"Vincent can put on quite a show." No matter how many times he'd denied it, Erin had known that Vincent, George Sr.'s nephew, had been behind Susie Tansley's attempt to destroy Lucas's already shaky reputation by claiming he was the father of her unborn baby.
Erin hadn't believed the malicious rumors flying around town about Lucas's relationship with Susie, but Lisette Clayton did. The fact that his own mother hadn't believed the truth had finally pushed Lucas over the edge. By the time the truth came out and Susie's claim had proved to be a lie, the damage had been done.
He'd shown up at Erin's house a little after midnight with a beat-up duffel bag, eyes dark with pain and a reckless offer that had quickly deteriorated into their firstand lastargument.
In the end, Erin had watched Lucas drive away, praying with all her heart that he would change his mind and stay in Clayton. And stand up to the people who'd spread rumors about him.
She'd watched the brake lights on his truck glow red at the stop sign. Left would take him home. Right would take him out of the city limits. He'd turned right.
Toward his dreams. And away from her.
" Better get back to work before Jerome fires me." Kylie's teasing voice tugged Erin back to the present as she breezed toward the door of the office.
Erin's heart clenched as she followed Kylie into the dining room and her gaze swept from table to table.
Be strong, she silently lectured herself.
Clayton boasted a population of less than a thousand people. Eventually, she and Lucas were going to come face-to-face.
And when they did, Erin knew exactly what she would do.