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"I can't go."
"Well, I certainly can't leave Little Rock and go to Stanton, Texas, with this busted leg," came the terse reply from the couch.
Logan Prescott's defiant black gaze met that of his partner, Charles Dawson, before making a sweeping glance of the white cast covering Charles's left leg from mid-thigh to within a hair's breadth of his toes. Logan muttered an expletive under his breath. You'd think a fifty-three-year-old man who ran a multimillion-dollar construction company would know better than to attempt intermediate slopes his first time skiing.
Charles didn't even have the excuse of trying to make points with a woman. He and his wife had been happily married for over fifteen years. No, Charles's excuse was that if he still had enough coordination to walk a twelve-inch-wide steel beam thirty stories up in their construction business, he could handle the ski slopes.
And despite his broken leg, he firmly maintained that if another skier hadn't cut in front of him and jarred his concentration, he wouldn't have hit the tree. Six feet tall, two hundred and thirty pounds, and built like a linebacker, Charles was a man who seldom changed his mind or backed away from an argument. But, neither was Logan.
Logan bit back another expletive. This time Charles was going to lose. After the hell Logan went through in Stanton eight years ago, he had made a vow never to set foot in the small East Texas town again.
Dark brown calloused fingers brushed across short black hair. "Gage can take care of things in Stanton," Logan said finally. "I need to finish the job in Springtown."
"Gage is the best foreman we've ever had, but he's just that a foreman. The city manager and mayor of Stanton are expecting to see one of the owners of Bridgeway Construction Company," Charles explained, as he tried unsuccessfully to maneuver a brown, blunt-tipped finger beneath the layers of plaster to scratch.
"When I met with them a month ago and it looked like we were going to win the bid to build Stanton's city hall complex, I assured them that I would be there the first couple of days once the announcement was made in case anyone had any questions. Since I can't go, you'll have to."
Logan prowled the length of the white leather couch Charles reclined on, his booted feet soundless on the thick peach-colored carpet. The tranquil setting of the lake and woods beyond the immense plate-glass window did nothing to ease his irritation. "The Orion office complex in Little Rock"
"Is a month ahead of schedule. If problems arise that the project manager can't handle, Gage can be there in an hour." Charles's brown eyes narrowed as he watched the angry strides of the man he had called friend for eight years and partner for six. "You're that afraid of seeing her?"
Logan stopped in mid-stride and spun around. A moment of unease swept through him, but none of the turbulent emotion he felt showed in his face. "What are you talking about?"
"You know. The her you've been running from since you left Stanton. The her you don't seem able to forget," Charles answered bluntly.
Logan's six-foot-three body of conditioned muscles clenched. His piercing black eyes narrowed. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, I do. Over the years you've told me more than once that Ida Mae Jones is your oldest friend. Yet you've never visited her in Stanton. I waited for you to go back once you decided to go along with her idea of renovating a condemned mansion and turning it into a shopping complex. Knowing how cautious you are about investing your money, I was stunned when you kept making excuses not to go see the place.
"When she declared she wanted your partnership more than your financial backing in one of the stores and you still didn't budge, I knew something wasn't right," Charles continued. "You confirmed my suspicions when you insisted I oversee the renovations on the Victorian mansion instead of doing it yourself."
"I trust you," Logan pointed out.
"That never stopped you from asking questions about a project before. You're fair, but demanding. You expect the best from yourself and everyone involved with Bridgeway and you've never settled for less. Yet, you acted as if the Victorian House didn't exist. So," Charles replied with a smile, "my guess is there's a woman involved. One particular woman you can't forget." Charles nodded toward Logan's clenched fists. "If you lay one finger on me, Helen is going to rearrange that handsome face of yours."
Logan's dark brow arched. Charles's wife was the gentlest, sweetest woman he knew. He started to snort, then recalled Helen's fierceness when it came to protecting her husband and their two kids. In the thirty minutes Logan had been at their lake home, she had checked on Charles at least twice. That kind of loyalty and love from a woman was priceless.
Once Logan thought he had finally gotten that lucky to find such a woman. A woman he would cherish and love for a lifetime. On a hot summer morning eight years ago he had been proved wrong.in spades.
"I'm not running from anyone," Logan said tightly. "You must have hit your head on something when you took that tumble. You should have had it X-rayed along with your leg."
Charles shook his graying head and sent Logan a look of understanding. "Go back and face her, man. She probably has seven children and is as wide as I am," he offered, resting his folded hands on his wide girth in apparent satisfaction that he had spoken a truth.
A picture of a slim, beautiful girl with laughing, light brown eyes and cocoa-colored skin flashed in front of Logan. Hard-won discipline thrust the image from his mind. "I never said there was a woman."
"You didn't have to. Even the hardest working men I know like to take time now and then for a little relaxation. In the first two months I knew you in Oklahoma, you never accepted one invitation for a beer or a friendly card game. You just kept working harder than any two men and stayed to yourself. You were always the first to arrive at the job site and the last to leave; the first to offer to work overtime. I didn't know if you were trying to make brownie points, or be a millionaire, or you had woman problems."
Unconsciously, Logan's hands clenched again. Before today Logan had always admired his partner's intuition. Now Charles was getting too close to memories Logan had ruthlessly sought to bury.
He didn't like to remember he was ever that stupid or that vulnerable.
Charles looked at Logan with knowing eyes, glanced at the doorway and lowered his voice to a barely audible whisper. "You had me wondering which woman until you blew up that night at Bessie's club. It was a good thing Bessie was a close friend of mine."
Logan remembered the night in Oklahoma City with crystal clarity. He had gone with his construction crew to the small blues club because he had finally and irrevocably been shown that all his hopes and prayers for the woman he loved to change her mind and contact him had been for nothing. A polished, snotty lawyer had made sure Logan understood his client wanted nothing more to do with him. Apparently her future didn't include a man with dirt beneath his fingernails. Needing to dull the memory of the lawyer's visit, Logan had finally tagged along with the men.
Two hours later he had been ruthlessly working his way through a bottle of Jack Daniels in search of oblivion when a woman reeking of cheap perfume and stale sweat had invited herself to his table and to his whiskey. Feeling none too kindly toward women in general since he was trying to forget one in particular, he told the woman to go heavier on the bathwater and lighter on the perfume before she tried to mooch off someone else in the future.
The next thing he knew, some man with tree trunks for arms and dinner plates for hands had him by the collar roaring that he had insulted his sister. Laying hands on Logan was the wrong thing to do to a man who had been pushed to his limit. Logan's balled fist slammed into the man's bulbous nose. The fight was on. By the time it was over, the club was a wreck, the man who had attacked Logan was out cold, and the police were working their way through shattered glass, broken chairs and overturned tables.
Weaving unsteadily on his feet amid the shambles of the room, Logan closed his eyes and shook his head to clear the alcoholic haze. The sound of a rough male voice telling him to face the wall snapped his eyelids upward. Two policemen were less than ten feet away. One stepped forward to make Logan do as requested, the other began citing the Miranda Act.
Charles had rushed forward with Bessie Brown, the club's singer/owner. Although the robust woman's brown eyes were glittering like the jagged edge of a broken beer bottle, she backed up Charles's story that Logan had only defended himself. At Charles's urging, she agreed not to press charges if Logan paid for half the damages.
Logan was given a stern warning instead of a ride in a patrol car. He hadn't minded paying Bessie because he was partially to blame. Not like the other time when he had been faced with jail and he had been completely innocent.
"I still think I ought to arrest him."
"I still don't care what you think, Sheriff. And since I'm the one with the license to practice medicine, you'll have to go by what I say," Dr. Perry said, glancing again at the resident putting the last strip of tape on the bandage covering Logan Prescott's entire chest.
Sheriff Stone gave the peak of his sweat-rimmed straw hat a firm yank before settling his hand once again near his service revolver. The holster was un-snapped. "Johnson and the men at the construction site said Prescott here caused Mr. Malone's heart attack."
Dr. Perry sent the sheriff a slanting glance. "I thought Johnson was a construction foreman. When did he go to medical school?"
"Dammit, Doc, I ain't got no time for your tongue," the sheriff snapped. "You know Malone carries a lot of weight in this community. I don't want it said I didn't do my duty simply because he's black."
The sheriff and his anger were ignored as Dr. Perry stepped closer to the exam table on which Logan sat, then pressed gnarled, experienced fingers over the dressing. "How does this feel, son?"
"Better," Logan said, as he watched the scowling face of the sheriff out of the corner of his eye. More than once they had had a run in, but so far, Logan had yet to spend a night in Stone's jaila fact the sheriff was obviously trying to rectify.
"What were you and Mr. Malone arguing about?" Sheriff Stone asked.
Logan's expression became shuttered. "Working conditions."
"My Aunt Fanny," Stone hissed and moved closer.
"Now, you listen and you listen good. I've had about enough of your uppity, sullen ways. Just because your parents left you a house on a little bit of property doesn't mean you're any better than anyone else in town. You know, Malone hires a lot of men in his construction business, men who have to feed their families. You threaten a man's family and you've stepped into a hornets' nest. I have over fifty of Malone's men wanting a piece of your hide so I advise you to tell the truth. If you don't want them on your head, you"
"Ned, stop bothering my patient," the doctor ordered and placed his narrow frame between Logan and the muscular sheriff. "Just because Logan likes to keep to himself is no reason to be so judgmental. Besides, those men you're so anxious to pacify probably didn't vote for you in the last election anyway." The doctor winked at Logan, his gray eyes dancing with devilment.
The sheriff flushed a dull red beneath his suntanned face. "Now, Doc, you ain't got no call to say something like that."
"Calm down, Ned. I was just having a little fun. You can't blame me. After all, you did drag me away from the patient you're trying to accuse Logan of harming in some way. I've told you over and over Logan was not the cause of Mr. Malone's heart attack, yet you keep insisting he was. Contrary to popular belief, heart attacks do not happen suddenly."
"I told you Johnson said Prescott attacked Mr. Malone for no cause and before anyone could stop
the fight, Mr. Malone grabbed his chest and keeled over," the sheriff reminded him. "Prescott probably scared Mr. Malone half to death."
Dr. Perry faced the sheriff. "J. T. Malone doesn't frighten that easily and you know it. Besides, you can't scare a person into having a heart attack. I've examined thousands of patients in my forty years practicing medicine and hundreds of them had been in fights. I'm telling you for the last time that after examining Mr. Malone, who is forty years older and fifty pounds heavier than Logan, he hasn't been in a fight with anyone."
"What about the bruises on Malone's face?" Sheriff Stone persisted.
Dr. Perry's sigh was long suffering. He glanced over his shoulder at the silent Logan. "I wish he'd have shown this much tenacity when someone stole my hubcaps last week." He continued as the sheriff started to sputter, "Calm down before you wake up your ulcer. Malone had one bruise on the left side of his head. If you'll remember the ambulance attendants said Mr. Malone was semiconscious and slumped beside an unconscious Logan in the work trailer when they arrived.
"Malone probably sustained his minor head injury when he fell during his heart attack and hit his head. By the way, he didn't give Logan his four cracked ribs, but I'm guessing since the two were so close together, Logan probably tried to keep Mr. Malone from falling but couldn't because of his own injuries. The pain of such a large man falling on Logan is the reason he was passed out."