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Gabe Dawson carefully pulled into a parking space on the town square. He didn't want to have a wreck on his first day back in town. With memories pouring into his head, he feared he might be too distracted to drive.
He'd grown up here, learning about life, sharing, hunting, camping, riding with his friends. Falling in love for the first time. Katie.
The man standing by his car door waited for him to acknowledge his presence. Gabe opened the door and got out. "Mac Gibbons!" he replied, grabbing one of his best childhood friends into a bear hug. "How did you know I was here?"
"I'd been to see Cal. Your new Mercedes caught my eye. Nice car."
"Yeah, thanks." The car was a result of his recent success. "I was on my way to see you."
"About your grandmother's will?" Gabe nodded.
Mac reached out and squeezed Gabe's shoulder in silent sympathy. "Come on, let's get it over with. Then we can visit."
Mac Gibbons knew Gabriel Dawson was in for a shock. He decided it would be better not to procrastinate. He hoped Gabe would take some time to think, not make a quick decision.
He led his old friend into his offices. After introducing him to his secretary, an efficient middle-aged woman, he took him down the hall, stopping at the first door.
"Alex, let me introduce an old friend, Gabe Dawson. Alexandra Langford is my partner."
"Langford?" Gabe repeated, a question in his voice.
Mac nodded. "And Tuck's wife."
Gabe smiled. "Tuck always was a lucky man. But I'll admit, I never thought he'd marry."
Mac chuckled. "One look at Alex, and he was a goner."
Alexandra gave her partner a knowing look. "You don't have room to talk, Mac."
"Yeah," he agreed with a contented sigh.
"You remarried?" Gabe asked, astounded. He'd been around when Mac had lived in Dallas. He knew how badly his friend had been hurt.
"He married and is a daddy twice over," Alex added.
Mac's grin only widened. "Never mind that. We'll catch up later. First, we've got some business to conduct."
He led his friend into his office and shut the door.
Before sitting down, he pulled a legal file from his file cabinet. "Your grandmother changed her will last year."
Gabe's head snapped up. "Do you mean I'm not the heir?"
It wasn't that he needed his grandmother's estate. As an attorney with a large firm in Dallas, he earned a more-than-healthy salary. Then he'd taken a risk on a personal injury case and had won big. Big enough that he'd never have to work again.
But he'd loved his grandmother. He wouldn't want to think he'd disappointed her.
"You're still the heir," Mac assured him, "if you meet certain conditions."
"Certain conditions?" Foreboding filled Gabe. His grandmother had fussed about his lifestyle. Surely she hadn't
"You know how amazed you were that Tuck and I were both married?"
Gabe stared at his friend. What did their marriages have to do with anything? "Well, yeah, Tuck was determined never to marry and you, well, I was there when you went through your divorce. I remember how bitter and hurt you were."
Mac nodded. "Spence and Cal are married, too," he added, naming two other friends. "It seems our mothers were frustrated that we hadn't married, any of us, and made a bet to see who would get the first grandbaby. They were so successful, they inspired a lot of other mothers and grandmothers."
"Are you telling me Gran changed her will toto force me to marry?"
Mac nodded. "Yeah. I tried to talk her out of it, but you know how hardheaded she was." He lifted several papers and passed them to Gabe before sitting down behind his desk. "You might as well read it yourself."
Gabe took the will, his brows furrowing.
He couldn't believe Gran would try to force his hand. He'd been engaged once, but Gran hadn't seemed too pleased with his choice. So why would she try to rush him into something?
He quickly read the papers, noting the requirement that he return to Cactus for one year. Outrageous, but not impossible. It would take him that long to sell her house. In the meantime, he would live there.
But it was the last requirement that had him leaping to his feet. "Marry Katherine? Was she crazy? Katie married over eight years ago. This is insane. When did she write this?"
"About six months ago. Katie is a widow now."
Gabe swallowed. "I can't believe she'd agree to this blackmail."
"I don't know whether she agreed or not. And there is a provision, saving you from that requirement if Katie marries someone else."
"Where is she? I'm going to share a few facts of life with Miss Katherine Peters!" he exclaimed, turning to charge out of the room.
"Katherine Hill. And you'll find her at The Lemon Drop Shop," Mac obligingly told Gabe, a speculative look in his eyes.
"The what?" Gabe said, coming to an abrupt halt.
"It's a bakery on the other side of the square. That's how she supports herself these days."
Gabe had avoided seeing Katie when he'd come back to visit his grandmother. His trips had always been brief and far apart. He hadn't even visited the guys very often. He was always too busy.
Gran had come to stay with him at Christmas every year, preferring his bachelor apartment to his parents' pretentious house in one of those neighborhoods in Dallas where the houses were huge and the lots small.
"She must not have been of sound mind when she made the changes," Gabe protested.
"I'm afraid you won't be able to prove that," Mac assured him.
"Then Katie must have put her up to it. She probably needs the money and thought I'd be easy plucking." He paced back to Mac's desk. "Is she still supporting half her family?"
Mac nodded. "Most of the kids are grown. Two are still in high school. And then there's her mother."
"That's what it is. She planned to cash in. Well, she turned me down once. She won't get that chance again." This time, when he turned to storm out of Mac's office, his friend didn't say anything to stop him.
Gabe stepped onto the sidewalk and saw the bright sign across the square. The Lemon Drop Shop. Every letter was lemon yellow on a white background. There were small tables and chairs in front of the store, with lemon-yellow umbrellas to provide shade. It looked clean, fresh, delectable.
He charged across the street, jogging through the square, past the band shell and onto the opposite sidewalk. His mind was whirling with the news he'd received.
But even more upsetting was the intense anticipation that filled him. Katie Peters. No, Katie Hill, a widow. She'd probably be fat and dumpy, desperate for his grandmother's wealth. He prayed she was. He didn't want to see her.
Which didn't explain why he was running.
Anger, that was it. He was angry that she'd swayed his sweet grandmother to act so irrationally.
A bell jangled as he swung open the door to The Lemon Drop Shop, and he wanted to strangle it. But almost no one paid him any attention.
Until he roared her name. "Katie Hill? Where are you?"
Katherine Hill was decorating a large tray of cookies. She enjoyed making the first few as she transformed the pale dough into bright butterflies. But as her back began to ache from bending over the counter, and she repeated the same designs again and again, she wished she were done.
Especially when someone yelled her name.
Startled, her hand jerked and the blue icing missed its mark. Instead, it shot across the wax paper onto the cookie beside it.
"Oh, come on," Katherine muttered softly. She took a knife to scrape off the wayward icing. Then she wiped her hands on the big apron she wore and pushed open the door that led into the front room. The friendly smile on her face disappeared, however, when she faced the man standing in the middle of the shop, his hands cocked on his hips.
Katherine immediately shut away the memories that wanted to come cascading down through her mind. Another time, another life.
She purposefully swept emotion from her face. "May I help you?"
"Don't act like you don't know me, Katie!" he ordered, his voice a threatening growl.
"Oh, sorry, Gabe. The sun made it hard for me to see you. What are you doing in Cactus?"
"You know what I'm doing here!"
The customers in the shop, those sitting at the small tables and others in line to be waited on, were staring at them. Even the two women who worked for Katherine were frozen.
She didn't know what he was talking about, but she knew she didn't want to discuss it with an audience. "Why don't you find a table outside? I'll bring us some drinks and a snack."
"It won't do you any good to try to sweeten me up. It's not going to work!"
Had the man gone stark raving mad? She hadn't seen him since she'd turned down his marriage proposal ten years ago. Well, that wasn't quite true. She'd occasionally seen him from a distance and hastily run in the opposite direction.
But he hadn't come to visit Mrs. Dawson all that often. For which she'd been grateful.
"I'll be right out," she muttered, avoiding everyone's stare. "Mary, Evelyn, I believe some of our customers are waiting."
The two ladies snapped out of their stupor and began waiting on the customers again, and Katherine returned to the workroom. She didn't look to see whether Gabe had followed her suggestion. If he decided to storm out as abruptly as he'd stormed in, she wouldn't object.
She didn't need any grief from him.
Putting several of the butterfly cookies on a plate, she loaded the plate on a tray and added two glasses of lemonade, along with napkins and straws.
After taking a deep breath, she pushed her way through the swinging door. She paused when she realized Gabe wasn't still standing in the middle of her shop.
"He's outside," Evelyn whispered.
Katherine gave her employee a calm smile and walked to the glass door. One of her male customers immediately sprang to his feet to hold the door open for her. With a quiet thank-you, she stepped outside.
It was spring in Cactus, when a cool breeze kept the air pleasant and everything was still green. In summer it got hot and the grass turned a dingy brown-green.
But Gabriel Dawson didn't look like he was enjoying the season. He glowered at her, standing as she approached the table.
With fourteen years' experience as a waitress behind her, Katherine set the two glasses and the plate on the table, then added the napkins and straws. She handed the tray to her brother, Paul, who worked for her in the afternoon.
Her words gave her companion pause.
"Paul? Is that you?" Gabe demanded.
When he'd left, Paul had been a seven-year-old who idolized him, following him around whenever he saw him.
"Yeah, Gabe," Paul said with a grin. After a sharp look from Katherine, he added, "I mean, Mr. Dawson."
Gabe glared at her again. "I think Gabe will be just fine, Paul. It's good to see you." He stuck out his hand and Paul took it.
Katherine was proud of her brother. He worked hard for her without complaint. After her shop closed, he returned home and did the chores. Then he attacked his homework with the same fervor.
He would graduate this year as the valedictorian if his grades held up this last semester.
"You're all grown-up," Gabe told her brother, smiling for the first time.
Katherine quickly looked away. That smile had been her world, once upon a time. It hurt too much to see it now.
"Yeah. It's been a long time," Paul returned, then glanced hurriedly at his sister. "Well, I'd betterI've got things to do. Let me know if I can get you anything."
"Sure. Thanks. Maybe we can visit later."
Paul gave a quick nod, followed by another wary look at his sister, before he nodded again and grinned.
Gabe said nothing until Paul had disappeared inside the shop. Then he sat down at the small table and took a drink of lemonade.
Katherine did the same, hoping the liquid would make it easier to talk. When he still said nothing, she ventured a question. "What has upset you?"
His features, somewhat softened by Paul's presence, hardened, and he looked like a man on a death mission. "Cut it out, Katie."
"No one calls me Katie these days. Please call me Katherine." She didn't need to be reminded of her youth, when everything had seemed possible. "Katherine?"
She sighed. "Gabe, tell me why you're angry. And what it has to do with me."
"I don't know how you convinced her to do it, Katie, but I won't stand for it. You won't win." His hands clenched into fists.
It had to be GranMrs. Dawson. She was the only connection between Katherine and Gabe. "What did your grandmother do?" she asked softly.
"You know exactly what she did. She wouldn't have done such an awful thing if you hadn't put her up to it."
"I visited your grandmother, Gabe, becausebecause she was lonely sometimes. But we never discussed you." Never, except for once. And Mrs. Dawson had promised never to reveal what Katherine had told her.
"Yeah, don't try that sob story on me. I talked to Gran every week."
"I know you did. She was very proud of your accomplishments." While they'd never discussed Gabe, Mrs. Dawson had always bragged on her grandson. Katherine had figured that was her due.
"So proud she didn't want to leave me anything?"
Katherine stared at him. When they'd dated, she'd known the Dawsons came from the wealthy side of town. His parents had had a nice house. His father had worked in Lubbock.
It wasn't until after Gabe left that her world had fallen apart, that she'd discovered his grandmother had money, too. While the Dawsons weren't as rich as some of the oil-rich families in town, Gabe's grandmother was well provided for.
"Did she leave it to your father?"
"Don't play games with me."
"Gabe, what are you talking about? I really don't know." And she was getting tired of being accused of something she didn't understand. "Now, you either explain what has upset you, or go away and stop bothering me."
"So you didn't know that she left me her estate on the condition that I marry you?"
His skepticism told her he didn't believe it. But she was too stunned by what he'd said. Finally she muttered, "That can't be true."
"Oh, yeah, it's true. And you know what's even better? If I don't comply with her terms, you get half her estate and the other half goes to charity." He stood up, putting his fists on the table and leaning toward her. "But don't think you've won. I'm a pretty good lawyer. I'll find a way around it!"