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"I'm being deployed to Afghanistan. I need you to come to Estes Park and take care of Jess."
Reed Montgomery straightened in his black leather desk chair with the lumbar support, his cell phone clutched in his now-sweaty hand as he processed what his older brother had said.
Colt was being deployed to Afghanistan. Soldiers went there and never returned.
Then the remainder of his brother's words sank in. I need you to come to Estes Park and take care of Jess.
He loved his niece, but the thought of being responsible for a child left Reed shaking. He didn't want children. The pressure. The fear of screwing up and damaging the kid for life. To top it off, taking care of any kid would be hard enough, but a teenage girl? That could send the strongest bachelor screaming into the night.
"Tell me I heard you wrong."
"I need you to watch Jess."
His brother had lost his mind.
Once Reed's brain kicked back into gear and his panic receded, he remembered his niece still had one set of grandparents. "I thought the plan was for Lynn's parents to stay with her."
"That was the idea, but when I called them I learned Joanne broke her hip last month and needed surgery."
"And they're just telling you now?"
"We don't talk much since Lynn died. They blame me for her death."
Almost a year ago, after fifteen years of marriage, Colt's wife had said she was sick of ranch life and had run off with her lover, only to die in a head-on collision a month later. Colt had picked up the pieces of his life, and explained as best he could to Jess that she hadn't been responsible for her mom leaving.
Lynn's death had also meant that Colt had to revise his family-care plan in case he was deployed.
"You weren't driving the car. Her lover was."
"They think if I'd been a better husband, she wouldn't have left. In their opinion I should've spent more time at home and less time with the reserves. Blaming me is easier than accepting the truth."
An only child, Lynn had grown up catered tospoiled rotten, actually. Colt's wife had been high-maintenance, self-centered and had believed her husband's life should revolve around her.
"Is Joanne doing well enough that Jess could go live with them in Florida?" In addition to being unqualified for the job, Reed thought, his life and business were here in San Francisco. How could he up and leave for Colorado?
"She said she should be eventually, but there's another problem. Their retirement community only lets children stay for a week. Last night Herb brought up the subject at a town hall meeting, and everyone went crazy. The Association of Homeowners thinks if it makes an exception for Jess, within a month they'll be overrun with kids."
"Threaten them with a lawsuit. That'll make them back down. Better yet, give me your in-laws' number. I'll have my lawyer call them."
"You need their phone number, but there's no point in them talking to your lawyer." As Colt rattled off the phone number, Reed added it to his computer address book. "Even if they made an exception, Jess refuses to live in 'an old folks' neighborhood where people drive golf carts because they're scared to drive a car.' That's a direct quote. She said when she stays with her grandparents they never go anywhere. So in her words, she'd be a prisoner."
While he felt bad for his niece, that didn't mean Reed wanted to return to the old homestead and play dad. He'd been happy to see Estes Park in the rearview mirror of his beat-up truck when he left for Stanford. The thought of returning for anything longer than a weekend visit left him queasy.
"You're the parent. Don't ask Jess what she wants. Tell her what she's going to do."
Colt laughed. "That's easy to say for someone who doesn't have kids. I tried the strong-arm approach. She threatened to run away."
"Teenagers say that every time they don't get their way."
"I think she meant it, Reed." Colt's voice broke. "She's been having trouble since Lynn died, but she won't talk about it. Last year she started cutting classes and sneaking out at night to meet friends. Living in a retirement community and going to a new school would only make things worse."
Somehow Reed couldn't connect the sweet niece he'd seen a year and a half ago at Christmas with the teenager his brother described. Jess had been eager to please, had loved school and was an excellent student. He stared at her picture on the corner of his mahogany desk. Her wide smile and twinkling brown eyes spoke of how carefree she'd been. Of course, the photo had been snapped before her mom ran off. He knew how that betrayal had affected Colt, but how could a kid wrap her head around something like that?
And his brother expected him to deal with a teenager who'd lost her mother and was acting out? What did he know about dealing with difficult children? Nothing except the piss poor example his father had given him. His stomach dropped. When Jess pushed him, and she wouldhell, all teenagers did, even the good oneshow would he deal with it? Would he react like his old man, with a closed mind and an iron fist?
No, he was better than his father.
He'd worked hard to become the man he was today and, unlike his father, he tried to do something about his anger. When Reed had worried he might repeat the cycle of violence, he'd taken an anger-management class. Of course, going back to Estes Park and dealing with a teenager could test the techniques he'd learned.
The good news was he and Jess got along well. He loved his niece, and to her he was the cool uncle who sent great gifts like the newest iPhone. They'd be okay. "You really think she was serious about running away?"
"I wouldn't ask you to come here otherwisenot when you could be here up to a year. I know this will make running your business tough."
His cell phone beeped in his ear, alerting him to another call. Reed glanced at the screen. Damn. He'd been trying to get in touch with Phil Connor all morning.
Forcing himself to let the call go to voice mail, Reed focused on his brother's problem. "Tricky? Yes. Impossible? No. Could she come here instead?"
"As if dealing with losing her mom wasn't enough, soon after that her best friend moved to Chicago. Now I'm going to a war zone. I'm nervous about uprooting her, too. That's another reason I backed down when she balked about going to Florida. I need you to do this for me. You and Jess are the only family I've got."
The words hit Reed hard. He and Colt had always been close. Even before their parents died, he and Colt had relied on each other, sticking together through all the crap slung at them during childhood. While Reed's life the past few years had been almost perfect, Colt hadn't been as lucky. Life had knocked his brother around pretty well, especially the past year. How could Reed add to Colt's problems? Only a selfish bastard would say no.
"How soon do you need me there?"
"I leave in three days. If you get here tomorrow, that'll give us time to go over things before I leave." Colt's heavy sigh radiated over the phone lines. "If anything happens to me, promise me you'll"
"Don't say that." While Reed tried to fill his voice with confidence, he knew there was no guarantee Colt would come home in one piece, or come home at all.
"I've got to and, dammit, Reed, you will listen. If I don't come back, promise me you'll watch out for Jess. Sure, Lynn's parents would take her, but I'm not sure that's best for her, especially if they won't move to Colorado."
"I give you my word, but you've got to take care. Don't do anything stupid. You don't have to be a superhero."
Colt chuckled, but the sound rang flat in Reed's ears.
After ending his conversation with his brother, Reed returned Phil's call and reassured his client that their project was still on schedule. He was proud of his company, of what he'd accomplished. RJ Instruments was small, with only forty employees, but it was his. Something he'd created from nothing, and the company was holding its own in the market. They were the up-and-comers in the semiconductor business, making the chips that drove many of today's electronic wonder gadgets.
Of course, all of that could change when he started running things remotely.
Reed turned his attention to his calendar and his upcoming meetings. Some he could handle via Skype. With a laptop and his cell phone, he could run his business long-distance for a couple of months, but more than that? Probably not. His customers would want to see him in person. He'd have to make in-person sales calls to launch SiEtch. He smiled, thinking of their newest product. If he was right, they'd revolutionize the semiconductor industry, but they were approaching some crucial deadlines for release. He definitely couldn't run his business remotely for a whole year until Colt returned.
He hadn't gotten where he was by letting fate toss him around. He'd created a solid business by being proactive. His mind worked the problem, rehashing the immediate issues forcing him to return to Coloradothe Association of Homeowners' age restriction and Jess's resistance.
No matter what Colt thought, the first step was tackling the association's age restriction. Reed turned to his computer and clicked on his address book to locate Colt's in-laws' number. Then he opened a new email, hit the priority icon and typed a message to his lawyer.
Contact my brother's in-laws to get the contact information for their Association of Homeowners. I need the association to make an exception for my niece to stay with her grandparents indefinitely while Colt's in Afghanistan. Threaten them with an age-discrimination lawsuit. Do whatever you have to, but get the exception. Until I receive the approval, I'll be forced to relocate to Colorado to take care of my niece.
Reed hit Send and leaned back in his chair. Surely when the exemption came through he could convince Jess to see things his way, especially when staying with her grandparents was best for her. There she'd have a woman to talk to and two people who'd actually raised a child, instead of an uncle who couldn't keep goldfish alive.
Next Reed called Ethan, his vice president of engineering, and asked him to come to his office. He'd met Ethan fresh out of college when they'd started working as software engineers at the same company. Eventually Reed had moved to the management track while Ethan pursued the technical route. The guy was a genius in that area, and the first person Reed had hired when he started RJ Instruments.
When Ethan arrived, Reed motioned toward the black leather couch. Then he walked across his office and settled into the wing chair to his friend's right. He glanced up at the print of a hole at Pebble Beach on the wall behind his sofa. Below the photo were the words The harder the course, the more rewarding the triumph. He hoped that held true this time.
"I need to update you on something that developed this morning." Reed explained about Colt's deployment and his leaving for Colorado.
"What about the customer calls you're scheduled to make next week?"
When clients had questions or needed hand-holding, Reed picked up the phone or hopped on a plane if necessary and handled the situations. While both he and Ethan understood the technology, over the past few years Ethan had developed issues dealing with some clients, becoming frustrated when they refused to see things his way. Now he'd have to step up and take on more of those responsibilities.
"I hope I can handle most of the issues with conference calls or on Skype. I might be able to pull off a quick day trip." Fly out, meet with the client and rush back to Colorado. Or he and Jess could leave Friday afternoon for a meeting/vacation trip. "But if those options don't work, you'll have to go instead."
"If I have to, I guess I have to."
"I can still run the weekly status meeting as usual via Skype. Between the two of us, we can reassure clients they won't see any difference in our service or attention to detail. We need to make sure everyone understands my being in Colorado won't affect our timelines, either, especially for SiEtch's release."
"I still think we're missing the mark, and we should lower our price point."
No way would he discuss that issue with Ethan again. They disagreed, and nothing either one said would change the other's mind. "My lawyer's working on getting approval for my niece to move in with her grandparents. Six months at the outside and I'll be back here running things."
Ethan shook his head, and chuckled. "I don't envy you. Six months with a teenage girl? I hope you can manage to stay sane."
"It shouldn't be too bad. School starts a couple of days after I get there. How hard can it be when she's gone eight hours a day?"
Reed's stomach knotted up when Estes Park came into view. The main drag into town was four lanes now instead of two, but even at rush hour, the traffic seemed nonexistent by San Francisco standards and, damn, a turtle moved faster! They passed The Stanley Hotel, a white giant perched on a hill above the town. Farther down W. Elkhorn Avenue, shops catering to the tourists that kept the town of ten thousand alive lined the sidewalks. So many people came to Estes Park to enjoy the scenery, shop and relax. Here, they could get away from their lives and slow down for a while. Recharge their batteries.
Not Reed. How would he face anyone after what he'd done to his father? Sure, he'd changed, but everyone in Estes Park knew who he'd been. That's why when he visited Colt he stayed on the ranch, but that wouldn't be an option now.
As they left the town behind and drove past other bigger ranches, Reed longed to be back in the city where he could blend in with the masses. Where he could walk past people and no one knew him. No one knew what he'd spent a lifetime running from.
When Colt turned down the long gravel driveway to the Rocking M, Reed's chest tightened. Pine and aspen trees stood guard. Others would call the rustic ranch settled among the rugged Rocky Mountains beautiful, maybe even going so far as serene, but not Reed. The mountains loomed over the ranch like silent giants, reminding him of his fatherharsh, unyielding and domineering.
Memories bombarded him as the simple ranch house came into view. Colt had painted the place a soft brown instead of the dingy cream Reed remembered and had planted new landscaping, but the alterations couldn't change his memories or the fact that he'd been glad to be free of the place. For Reed, the old man's presence dominated everything on the ranch. Even after all these years and everything he'd done to shake him.
Like staying away from Estes Park while his father had been alive.
"You know where the guest room is," Colt said once they stepped inside the front door. "When you're ready I'll give you the rundown on the place."
While Reed had returned to the Rocking M since Colt owned the place, his visits had so far consisted of a Thanksgiving weekend or a couple of days over Christmas, and he'd avoided going into town. He'd worked so hard to leave his past behind, but that was hard to do when everyone in town knew who he'd been.
Ben McAlister, Avery's father, had done him a favor all those years ago, though at the time, Reed had thought it had been the worst thing ever to happen to him.
Your father's an alcoholic who beats the people he claims to love. You've changed this summer, and I hate to say it, but I see glimpses of him in you, son. You need to grow up and deal with your past. Until you do that, all you'll do is drag my daughter down with you.
As Reed trudged up the stairs he told himself he'd be damned if he'd let his memories pull him back.