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"Your father is dead."
It took a few seconds for the Phosphor County sheriff's cautious words to register. Cade Randall's chest tightened with pain, but he pushed the emotion away.
Figures the old man would show up today, of all days. Even dead he still caused trouble.
Cade didn't want to care about the man who abandoned his family twenty years ago. He glanced around the offices of Stonegate Investigative Agency wondering why the sheriff brought him here to tell him the news when a simple phone call would have sufficed.
The woman behind the desk watched him carefully. He struggled to remember her namePatience something. He didn't know who she was, exactly. She was beautiful. A professor type, with long blond hair that framed a perfect face featuring high cheekbones and nearly translucent green eyes. She wore a suit jacket over a miniskirt, he recalled her legs were the kind men dreamed about. And she smelled like honeysuckle, which for some reason was the most distracting thing about her. His father was dead.
Judging from the looks on the sheriff's face and Patience's, they were waiting for him to respond.
"Sheriff, I appreciate you letting me know."
He checked his phone. There were six messages from his executive assistant. "I'm sorry, but I need to go." The merger was happening today, and he couldn't be late for his next meeting. Cade rose to leave.
"Wait." Patience held out a hand as she stood. "Don't you want to know what happened to your father?" Her eyes narrowed with recrimination. To her, Cade probably looked like a heartless bastard.
"Ma'am, he left our family many years ago without so much as a goodbye. He just didn't come home one night. So, no, I don't care how he died, or where he was when you found him." He paused reflecting for a moment. There was someone who would care. "Though I'm certain my grandmother would like to give her son a proper burial."
"Please, hear me out." Her voice was firm. "I promise you I won't take more than two more minutes to explain."
Cade didn't have time for any of this. He had to get back to the office. Though something in her eyes compelled him to stand still. "Fine. You have my attention." He crossed his arms over his chest.
She didn't bother sitting down. "As the sheriff said, I'm Dr. Patience Clark, Stonegate's forensic anthropologist. Your father's remains were brought to Austin by the sheriff for identification."
Cade inclined his head slightly to let her know he understood.
"I'll cut to the chase, since you have no interest in what happened to him. I felt you should know your father was murdered about twenty years ago on some land just outside of your hometown."
Murdered? In Phosphor?
The knot in Cade's chest tightened even more. That meant No, she had to be wrong. Why was this happening now? His phone vibrated again and Cade took it out and glanced at it as the sheriff and Patience watched him.
His father didn't leave the family, after all. Cade rubbed his forehead and tried to process the information, but he couldn't. He couldn't deal with this today.
Cade shoved what Patience told him on a mental shelf. He'd deal with it after the merger. His employees were depending on him making this deal work.
"I apologize for my behavior and I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. Unfortunately, I have to go." He started to back out the door.
Patience gave him a wary glance. "One more minute, please." She pulled out a two-page document. "If you'll sign this, it'll give me permission to pursue your father's murder on your behalf, then I'll get out of your hair. You may not care who killed him, but my company, Stonegate Investigative Agency, has a one hundred percent close rate when consulting on cases. I need to find your father's murderer. The sheriff will be supervising the investigation."
Cade's gut burned with anxiety and he ran his fingers through his hair. He had to get out of there. "I'll sign anything you want, but I'm not sure what you think you're going to find after twenty years. Seems like a waste of time to me."
She pushed the documents toward him on the desk and pointed where she needed his signature. "My guess is you've never been on an archeological dig. You'd be surprised what can be found even after thousands of years. The sheriff told me the bones were discovered by hikers in a shallow grave that had been wasted away by erosion in a remote area, so if it's been untouched there's a good chance I'll find something."
"It's your time." He shoved the papers toward her.
"Thank you." She pulled the signed papers to her chest.
The lifted eyebrow told him she didn't approve of his attitude, but he couldn't worry about that. The merger about to take place meant big things for his company. The value of his employees' stocks would rise through the roof, and he could start the new research division for their microchip and have an entirely new brand of supercomputers out next year.
He shook the sheriff's hand and took Patience's hand in his. It was soft, and he had a feeling her scent would linger on his skin. "Thank you, again."
His phone buzzed, and he answered it.
"Sir, Greg is here and he says he has to talk to you now." His assistant was excited, which meant something had happened.
"Give me thirty seconds and then put him on."
Cade tried to smile at the sheriff and at Patience but was sure that it came off more as a grimace.
"Again, I appreciate your efforts." He turned to leave.
"Here," she said. "This is my information, in case you have any questions."
He stuffed the folded piece of paper into his pocket and hurried for the door, the phone at his ear.
As Greg spoke, he tried to listen, but his mind was on his father and the woman who had given him the news. While Cade usually didn't care what people believed of him, it bothered him that she might consider him a coldhearted jerk. Well, he could be when it came to business, but that was different.
"Cade, did you hear me? The meeting has been moved up to ten. You have to get here now," Greg yelled through the phone. Normally, Cade wouldn't take such insubordination from an employee, but Greg was also one of his best friends.
Cade slipped into the limo waiting for him and the driver shut the door.
"Greg, calm down. I'm on my way. I'll be there in five. We have plenty of time to go over any last-minute issues."
The other man went on to tell Cade some of the details, but he only half listened. He pulled the folded sheet from his jacket pocket. Her business card slipped out, the scent of honeysuckle filled his senses. He opened the piece of paper to find a brief note.
"I dare you to help me find your father's killer." She'd met him less than ten minutes ago and she knew exactly how to get to him.
Cade wasn't sure how he felt about that.
Patience sat in the basement of Phosphor's County Courthouse, staring at six giant boxes of records. Her job usually involved identifying bones, some of which were centuries old. This was her first time to do any real detective work, something she normally left to others at the agency.
The seasoned professionals at Stonegate knew exactly how to tackle cold murder cases. With so many colleagues busy with other projects and a burning desire to get out of the lab, Patience couldn't let this case rest. She couldn't stand the idea of this poor man being murdered and no one caring enough to do something about it.
Her mind flashed to the sexy Cade Randall. The instant their eyes met, her body reacted with a heated blush. That sort of thing never happened to her and she'd been worried she might be coming down with a cold. But when those steely gray eyes of his had narrowed in on her, she could tell he was just as attracted to her as she was to him. Anthropologically speaking the reaction was an interesting phenomenon, one she wouldn't mind pursuing.
Too bad he's a jerk.
Shoving her hair up into a ponytail, she moved toward the boxes, grateful experienced agency detectives Shannon and Katie had given her advice on where to start. No one seemed to know who owned the land where the bones were discovered. Finding the answer was her first assignment on the well-ordered plan she'd devised.
"More than likely, no one wants to lay claim because they are worried about the consequences," Katie had informed her. "Some of the records may be really old, and property lines shift all the time. When land is inherited or sold and the surveyors don't know what they're doing, anything can happen. There have been cases where fifty years later a farmer discovers part of the land he's been working on most of his life, isn't his. Disputes over land, especially in Texas, are a big deal. It's a good place to start."
Lifting the lid on the first box, dust assaulted Patience. She sneezed, and reached for a tissue in her bag. Evidently, people didn't hang out in the Phosphor records room very often. The whole place could use a vacuum and about a hundred dust rags. Patience had a slight case of OCD and preferred her spaces neat and tidy. She kept her labs pristine, and she wasn't a fan of moldy smelling dustbins like the basement.
Pulling out an armful of files she sat down at the long table and began to peruse them. For three hours she sat searching for one mention of the property in question. She didn't find a thing.
Her first day in town, and she was doing not so great. Frustrated, Patience returned everything to its proper place and put the lids back on the boxes.
Way to go, detective.
Her friends made it look so easy.
Glancing at her watch she realized it had been several hours since she'd eaten.
Guess it's time to check out the Bluebonnet Cafe.
She'd seen the establishment across the street when she parked in front of the courthouse. It was almost one and when she entered the cafe she could tell it had been a busy afternoon. Dishes were stacked high in a big tub behind the counter, and the waitresses were wiping down all the tables and refilling salt and pepper shakers.
"Hey, darlin', why don't you take that booth in the corner, we've got that one cleaned up for you," said the waitress with a long brunette ponytail, jeans and a pink T-shirt that read "Shut up and eat."
Patience nodded her thanks and walked toward the back. A group of older gentlemen sat at a center table. They looked like regulars, and she wondered if maybe she should try to talk to them to see if they knew who owned the property. But food was her first priority.
The menu was on the table, and from the delicious smells in the kitchen she had a feeling the selections were comfort food greatness. She ordered a cheeseburger, fries and lemonade. She thought seriously about a piece of coconut cake, before deciding the burger and fries would do enough damage.
She didn't mind her curves, unless they made her jeans too tight, which was why she usually stuck to meat, vegetables and fruit.
The waitress delivered her lunch, and Patience gasped. The hamburger was almost as big as the plate. Even with her appetite she would barely make a dent in the food.
A shadow crossed in front of her table. Patience glanced up to see three of the men from the other table standing over her.
"Hello." Patience was curious as to why they were there.
"Heard ya was over at the courthouse digging into property records," the oldest man said. He wore a dark gray hat, jeans and his skin was so leathery it didn't look real. His nearly black eyes were downright hostile, as was his tone.
"I might have been," Patience ventured. She didn't know what they were up to, but she refused to be intimidated. "I'm not sure how it concerns you, one way or the other." Her right eyebrow rose. She'd dealt with bullies all of her life, she could handle a couple of rednecks in a Podunk town.
"Quite a mouth you got there," said the youngest of the three, who was probably somewhere around fifty, though it was hard to tell with his black hat pulled down over his face so low she couldn't see his eyes. He leaned forward.
Patience refused to move, holding her chin even higher.
"Reckon you should keep to your own business and leave our town alone," the man threatened.
"I reckon you should leave my friend Patience there alone," said a voice from the doorway of the cafe. There was a silhouette of a man who wore a cowboy hat, white shirt, boots and jeans, but she couldn't see his face.
"Her business is my business," he continued, "and I don't appreciate you making threats to my friends."
The older man held his hands up in surrender.
"Just looking after the town, Cade. We don't like nosey folk in our business."
Cade walked to the table and Patience had to forcibly shut her mouth with her hand. The man had been sexy in his suit, but in these jeans, he was nothing less than smokin' hot, as her boss, Mariska, the owner of Stonegate, would say.
He leaned down and kissed her cheek. "Hey, there. Everything okay?"
His lips scorched her skin, and she couldn't breathe.
Cade slid into the other side of the booth. "I see you ordered enough for the both of us." He gave her a dazzling smile.
She willed her mouth to work, but it didn't. Though her heartbeat did double-time.
Cade glanced at the men. "Moses, Jim, Ralph, I'm sure you have better things to do than watch us eat." He smiled but his tone implied they should leave quickly.
Up until six weeks ago when he came to town to check on his land at his grandmother's request, it had been two years since Cade had been in Phosphor to visit his family. Not much had changed. For the most part the townspeople were friendly, but these old characters were the exception.
The men stared at him, but eventually backed away, mumbling as they left the cafe.
Cade jumped up to grab an empty plate from the waitress, and ordered a sweet tea.
Patience remembered the last time she'd seen him. He was like some kind of Jekyll and Hydea mind-bendingly sexy Jekyll and Hyde.