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Grady frowned across the desk at his older brother and fought the urge to fold his arms in an act of pure defiance. It wasn't just that Dan expected Grady to spend Thanksgiving traveling for business but that he expected him to do it with Paige Ellis.
Pretty, petite Paige made Grady feel even more hulking and awkward than usual. It didn't help that Dan might have just stepped out of the pages of a men's fashion magazine. Slender and sleek, his dark hair having long since gone to silver, Dan served as a perfect contrast to his much larger--and much less dapper--younger brother. Dan was elegant, glittering silver compared to Grady's dull-as-sand brown.
Dan's white shirt looked as if it had just come off the ironing board, while Grady's might have just come off the floor. The navy pinstripes in Dan's expertly knotted burgundy tie perfectly matched his hand-tailored suit. Grady's chocolate-brown neckwear, on the other hand, somehow clashed with a suit that he'd once thought brown but now seemed a dark, muddy green.
The only thing the Jones brothers seemed to share, besides their parents and a law practice, were eyes the vibrant blue of a perfect spring sky. Grady considered them wasted in the heavily featured expanse of his own square-jawed face.
"It's not as if you'd enjoy the holiday anyway," Dan was saying. Grady grimaced, conceding the point. Okay, he wasn't eagerly anticipating another chaotic feast at Dan's place in Bentonville. Why would he? A fellow couldn't even watch a good football game without one of his three nieces or sister-inlaw interrupting every other minute.
"I didn't say I wouldn't do it," he grumbled. "I said the timing stinks."
No one wanted to spend a major holiday flying from Arkansas to South Carolina, but for Grady the task seemed especially disagreeable because it involved a woman and a kid.
Grady did not relate well to women, as his ex-wife had been fond of pointing out. She had contended that it had to do with losing his mother at such a young age, and no doubt she was right about that. He always felt inept and stupid in female company, never quite knowing what to say.As for children, well, he hadn't known any, except for his nieces, and he'd pretty much kept his distance from them. These days their adolescent behavior made him feel as if he'd stumbled into an alternate universe.
Besides, family law was Dan's forte, not Grady's. Give him a good old bare-knuckle brawl of a lawsuit or a complicated legal trust to craft. Even criminal defense work was preferable to prenups, divorces and custody cases, though he hadn't done much criminal defense since he'd left Little Rock. After his marriage had failed he'd come back home to Fayetteville and the general practice established by his and Dan's father, Howard.
"The timing could be better," Dan agreed, "but it is what it is." Grady made a face and propped his feet on the corner of his brother's expansive cherrywood desk with a nonchalance he definitely was not feeling. "You're the attorney of record," he pointed out. "You should do this."
Dan had worked every angle on this case from day one. By rights, he ought to be there at the moment of fruition. But Dan had a family who wanted him at the dinner table on Thanksgiving. And Grady had no feasible excuse for not stepping in, even at the last minute.
"Trust me," Dan said, "Paige isn't going to complain." Paige Ellis had doggedly pursued her ex after he'd disappeared with her son nearly three and a half years ago. Now the boy had been found and was waiting in custody of the state of South Carolina to be reunited with his mother.
Grady was glad for her. He just wished he didn't have to be the one to shepherd her through this reunion. The petite, big-eyed blonde made Grady especially uncomfortable, despite the fact that they hadn't exchanged half a dozen words in the three years or so that she'd been a client of their law firm.
"You'll want to look this over," Dan went on, plopping a file folder a good two inches thick onto the desk next to Grady's feet. "All the pertinent paperwork is ready. You should probably take it with you when you inform Paige about her son."
Grady bolted up straight in his chair, his feet hitting the floor. "Now hold on! The least you can do is deliver the news."
Dan turned up both hands in a gesture of helplessness and rocked back in his burgundy leather chair. "Look, I'd love to deliver the good news, but this needs to be done in person ASAP, and Chloe has a jazz band program at three."
Grady knew without even looking at his watch that it was at least half past two in the afternoon now. No way could Dan get to Nobb, where Paige Ellis lived, and back to Bentonville, where his daughters went to school, by three o'clock. If he skipped out on Chloe's performance, Dan's wife, Katie, was liable to skin him alive. Katie wasn't shy about demanding that Dan make his family a priority. Grady didn't understand how his brother could be so disgustingly happy in his marriage, but he was fond enough of Dan to be glad that it was so.
After a few more minutes of discussion, Grady sighed in resignation, gathered up the file folder and strode back to his office, grumbling under his breath. Just thinking about Paige Ellis made him feel even more hulking and plodding than usual.
Thanks to an expensively outfitted home gym, he was in better shape than most thirty-nine-year-olds, but that didn't keep him from feeling too big and too clumsy. Standing a bare inch past six feet in his size twelve shoes, his square, blocky frame hard packed with two hundred pounds of pure muscle, he wasn't exactly a giant, but he'd felt huge and oafish since puberty, when he'd dwarfed the other boys. In the company of some delicate, feminine little creature like Paige Ellis, he felt like a lumbering monster.
Entering his office, Grady turned down the lights, crossed the thick, moss-green carpet, dropped the folder onto his desk and switched on a lamp. He sat down in his oversize brown leather chair, tilted the bronze shade just so and opened the folder. He began thumbing through the notes and documents, scanning the material and jotting down notes as he went.
His ability to read quickly and comprehend completely was his greatest asset and brought in a considerable amount of income in consulting fees. Other attorneys knew that Grady by himself could accomplish more in the way of research than a roomful of clerks. Consequently he spent a good deal of his time alone at his desk.
Grady reached the end of the last page in the file. After making a copy of his notes for the folder, he tucked it into the file and carried the whole thing to the office of Dan's terribly efficient personal secretary.
Janet was none too fond of Grady. She stared at the file that he placed on her desk, then looked up at him, her pale pink frown seeming to take issue with his very existence. "What is this?"
She blinked at him, her lashes too black and clumped together.
"I can see that it's a case file, but why are you giving it to me?"
"You're Dan's secretary."
She let out a long-suffering sigh and narrowed her eyes at him, her lips compressed into a flat line.
Janet had given up complaining that Grady didn't have his own personal secretary, but she made her displeasure known by grudgingly performing those tasks which he did not perform for himself or push off on the young receptionist. Grady had made a halfhearted attempt to find a male secretary at one point, but without success. He'd gotten by with a part-time male law clerk from the University of Arkansas School of Law. Having no personal secretary was an inconvenience, but he had no desire to stutter and stammer his way around a strange female.
Janet flipped open the file folder and checked the contents for herself. "Ah. The Ellis file."
Grady's face heated.
Without a word the secretary handed over the necessary warrants and writs that would be required to prove identities and custody assignments to the South Carolina authorities. She also passed Grady a map and a pair of printed sheets showing the next day's available flights to and from South Carolina via the regional airport and Tulsa, some ninety minutes away. Then she immediately rose and carried the folder into the back room, where it would be swiftly and efficiently filed.
Donning a camel tan cashmere coat that reached midcalf, Grady took the elevator down to the parking lot and a cold, drizzling rain, briefcase in tow. He slung the briefcase on to the seat of his Mercedes and followed it, resisting the urge to huddle inside his coat until the heater started blowing warm air.
While navigating the forty-some miles between Fayetteville, Arkansas, and the tiny community of Nobb tucked into the foothills of the Ozarks to the northwest, Grady mulled over what he would say to Paige Ellis, much as he would have thought out an opening statement. He found the Ellis place on the edge of the village just past a pair of silos and a big, weathered barn. A dirt lane snaked upward slightly between gnarled hickories and majestic oaks, past tumbledown fencing and rusting farm implements to a small, white clapboard house.
After parking his sedan next to a midsize, seven-year-old SUV in dire need of a good washing, Grady stepped out of the car. A scruffy, well-fed black lab got up from a rug on the porch and lumbered lazily down the steep front steps to greet Grady with a sniff.
Dan had judged it best not to call before arriving, and Grady hadn't questioned that decision. Paige Ellis worked from her home as a medical transcriptionist and kept regular hours, so she was apt to be available on any given weekday. Suddenly, though, Grady wondered if it was too late to warn her that he was about to descend upon her. Then the dog abruptly opened its yap and did that for him.
The seemingly placid dog howled an alarm that could have put the entire nation on alert. The lab couldn't have been more vociferous if Grady had shown up wearing a black mask and hauling a crate full of hissing cats.
Feeling like a felon, Grady hotfooted it to the house, practically leapt the steps leading up to the porch and skidded to a halt in front of the door, which needed a coat of white paint. He saw no bell, but a brass knocker with a cross-shaped base had been attached to the door at eye level and engraved with the words, As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.
Somehow Grady was not surprised to find this evidence that Paige Ellis was a believer. Dan and his family were Christians, active in their local church and given to praying about matters, as was his father, but Grady himself was something of a secret skeptic. He didn't see any point in arguing about it, but he privately wondered if God even existed. If so, why would He let so many bad things happen, like his mother's death and Paige Ellis's son being abducted by her ex-husband?
With the dog still barking to beat the band, Grady reached for the knocker, but before his hand touched the cool metal, the door yanked open. There stood an old fellow with more balding head than sooty, graying hair. Slightly stooped and dressed in a plaid shirt, khakis, suspenders and laced boots, his potbellied weight supported on one side by a battered cane, he swept Grady with faded brown eyes recessed deeply behind a hooked nose that had been broken at least once. Apparently satisfied, he looked past Grady to yell at the dog.
"Shut up, Howler!"
To Grady's relief, the aptly named dog seemed to swallow his last bark, then calmly padded toward the porch.
"Matthias Porter," the old man said, stacking his gnarled hands atop the curved head of his cane. "Who're you?"
Grady had at least four inches and fifty pounds on Porter, and that cane wasn't for show, but the way the old fellow held himself told Grady that he was a scrapper and the self-appointed protector of this place. Grady put out his hand, aware of the dog moving toward the rug on one end of the porch.
"Grady Jones. I'm here to see--"
"Jones," the older man interrupted, "you're Paige's attorney, ain't you?"
Grady nodded. "Actually, my brother, Dan--"
Porter didn't wait to hear about Dan or anything else. Backing up, he waved Grady into the house, saying, "I don't shake. Too painful. Arthritis in my hands. And you're letting in cold air."
His ears still ringing from the dog's howling, Grady stepped forward and found himself in a small living room. He took in at a glance the braided rag rug on the dull wood floor, the old-fashioned sofa covered in a worn quilt, the yellowed shade on the spotted brass lamp next to a broken-down recliner and a wood-burning stove that filled a corner between two doors.A shelving unit stood against one wall at an angle to the recliner and couch. In its center, surrounded by books and numerous photos of a young boy, sat a combination television-set-and-VCR.
Grady knew that the search for Paige Ellis's son had been expensive. If the condition of this house and its furnishings were any indication, the search had required every spare cent that she could scrape together. Feeling out of place and too big for the space, Grady watched Matthias Porter hobble through a door and disappear into a hallway. He had no idea who Matthias Porter was, but it didn't matter. Standing there like an overgrown houseplant, the handle of his briefcase gripped in one fist, he waited with a strange combination of dread and anticipation for Paige Ellis to show herself.