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"Sam came later."
Jonas Callahan, remembering the arrival of a baby brother after their parents had "gone to heaven."
"I have a proposition for you," Sam Callahan said as he sat down in Seton McKinley's office in the Diablo, New Mexico, courthouse. "A proposal, actually."
Seton looked at Sam as he lounged in the brand-new leather chair she had situated in front of her brand-new pine desk. It hadn't been an easy decision to return to Diablo and hang out her shingle. Private investigator work in Washington, D.C., had been lucrative.
She didn't expect to make a whole lot of money in Diablo, but that wasn't the primary reason she'd returned. The primary reason was across from her, hunky and completely unaware of how he made her heart race.
At the word proposition, Seton's senses had gone on full alert. "Are you aware that the Callahans have quite the reputation for your propositions, proposals and plots? And I wouldn't necessarily call it a good one."
The handsome cowboy smiled at her, unperturbed. Their relationship over the past couple of years had been what Seton thought of as "friendly adversarial," with a touch of romantic longing on her side, though she hadn't breathed a word to anyone about her crush on the cowboy.
"Reputation isn't something that concerns me," Sam said, his tone easy.
Seton wasn't surprised. "Before you share your proposal, be warned that I won't do any work for you that involves Bode Jenkins. Or the Jenkins family in general."
Sam's grin widened the deep clefts around his mouth. "I'm not worried about Jenkins these days. He's been pretty quiet since my brother married his daughter, Julie."
"I spend quite a bit of time with Mr. Jenkins. I'm fond of him," Seton said, just to let Sam know she felt his comment bordered on disrespectful to the Jenkins family.
He shrugged. "Your problem, not mine, beautiful."
She frowned, studying the cowboy, from his dark, wavy hair to his slanted cheekbones. He looked like a Native American in a chalk portrait she'd seen in an art gallery. Lawyers shouldn't be so handsome, she thought. It masks the devil in them, fools the eye like a mirage.
If there was one thing she'd learned from spending time at Rancho Diablo, it was that the Callahans played for their own team, and everyone else could get bent.
"I've got a meeting in twenty minutes," Seton said. "Why are you here, Sam?"
He gazed at her in silence for a moment, during which Seton felt as if he was trying to decide if he could trust her. Or thinking how he might manipulate her into doing whatever it was he had on his mind. She waited, tapping a pencil on the notepad in front of her with some impatience.
"I don't really know who I am," Sam said, his voice soft and husky.
Seton blinked. "Most people feel that way sometimes, don't you think?"
He shook his head. "No, I really don't know who I am."
She put the pencil down and leaned back. Potential clients sat in the leather chairs, the only expensive elements in her new office. She had a wooden swivel chair, which was hard and kept her uncomfortable enough to focus. She looked into Sam's navy blue eyes and saw that he was serious.
Very strange for him, because he had a tendency to be the footloose charmer of the family. "You're Sam Callahan. Last of six brothers. Family lawyer and head of the legal team hired to defend Rancho Diablo from a takeover by the state of New Mexico."
"By Bode Jenkins," Sam said.
"It's New Mexico v. Callahan," Seton reminded him. "You have four married brothers, and one older brother who calls my sister, Sabrina, occasionally. I'm not sure why. She's not, either. Jonas seems to be quite the chatterer since she moved to D.C."
"Jonas likes to keep tabs on everyone. He's weird that way."
"Anyway, that's who you are." Seton folded her hands on the desk. "Your aunt Fiona and uncle Burke moved back to Ireland last year. You have one of the largest ranches in all New Mexico. You rarely date, although the ladies in town would love to show you a good time. And you claim to be lazy."
"I am." Sam brightened. "That's my favorite trait. I would describe myself as having a laid-back personality. It's very important for a man to be relaxed when he's only twenty-eight. I was twenty-six when the whole lawsuit thing started."
Seton sighed. "I don't have a couch for you to lie on if you're looking for a therapy session, Sam. And I'm not really interested in learning more of your history than I already know." She cast an eye over him, realizing he probably wasn't completely aware of his physical attributes. A dark brown cowboy hat had been thrown on the chair next to the one he occupied. His jeans weren't dress, but standard Wranglers. Under a black leather jacket, a black T-shirt stretched across his chesta T-shirt that appeared to be inside out. If he took off his jacket, she'd be able to tell.
"So?" she pressed.
"My laziness is probably a good place to start." His dark blue eyes twinkled. "I'd like to hire you in the spirit of laziness."
She shook her head. "I can already tell I should refuse."
"You haven't even heard what I want to hire you for," Sam said. "There's no conflict, I swear."
"There's a conflict anytime a Callahan is involved." Seton sat up. "I wouldn't be comfortable working for you, considering my relationship to the Jenkinses."
"An unfortunate relationship, considering that Bode is a slimy dog," Sam said. "But I can overlook some of your flaws."
Seton stared at him. "I don't want to work for you." He waved a hand, dismissing her objection. "At least hear me out. You might like what I'm offering you."
"I doubt it." She sighed, then leaned back. "But go on. Five minutes."
"Back to not knowing who I am," Sam continued. "I think it's important for children to know these things."
"You want me to look up information on your parents?" Seton asked. "Won't your aunt Fiona tell you everything you want to know? She was your guardian since you and your brothers were very young, right?"
Sam shook his head. "I'm not so worried about me at the moment," he said. "I'll figure myself out one day."
"Okay," Seton said. "What do you want me to do then?"
Sam's expression turned serious, which made him look even more handsome, if possible. It was annoying. "I'd like to hire you to be my wife," he stated. "Although not in the traditional sense."
Seton held back a gasp. "I'm sorry. Not that I expected anything about this conversation to be normal or usual"
"I'm sure you're aware," Sam interruptedjust like a Callahan, "that my aunt has the ranch divided among the six of us. We get our portions when we marry."
"Yes, I've heard of Fiona's wild plan to put enough wives and babies on Rancho Diablo to keep it from being taken over." Seton frowned. "It's unorthodox."
"Maybe," Sam said, "but it's working."
She looked at him. "The only thing that's kept the ranch in your family is your legal expertise." Seton reconsidered her words. "Some call it your legal maneuvers. I've even heard it referenced as shystering and sleight of hand."
"That Bode," Sam said, shaking his head. "He's such a die-hard fan of mine."
"Anyway," she said, "was that your proposal? Because I have no intention of being involved in one of the famous Callahan plots." She glanced at her watch. "My next appointment should be here any moment."
"We'll worry about that when your victim arrives," Sam said. "I'm offering you the chance to marry into one of the greatest families around. We're all really nice, contrary to what you hear from ol' Toady Stinkens. But here's the catch, which may be a problem for you. You won't have a shot at becoming a mother, which is probably important at your age." He winked at her. "I don't want children. I don't even want the ranch, honestly. I could make that confession to my family, but they wouldn't believe it, nor accept it, anyway." Sam shrugged. "I've spent years fighting for it, because they asked me to. At one time I even let my brothers talk me into being the fall guy for ownership of the ranch, which I would have then turned over to them. I would have been a puppet owner," Sam said, sounding pretty happy about being the figurehead winner of Fiona's race-to-marriage-and-munchkins.
After a deep breath, he continued. "But control isn't my thing. I'd rather slide away from the responsibility, if you know what I mean. A wife like you would make everyone think I was falling in with the plan. Except I wouldn't be." His eyes glinted mischievously. "After a while, when the lawsuit is settled and my brothers are in full lockdown mode at the ranch, you and I will quietly divorce. I plan to take off to Alaska and do some flyfishing. Then again, I've got a yen to see the Amazon rain forest. There's so much I want to do," Sam said, his voice thoughtful, "and none of it involves a wife, and definitely not children. As I say, that may be a problem for you, since your biological clock is probably set on high alert."
Seton debated taking off her black patent high heeled pump and stabbing the crazy cowboy with it, deciding it wasn't worth ruining the only pair of pretty shoes she had. "I'll pass. And I think the shameful way you refer to Mr. Jenkins hardly speaks well of your maturity. Toady Stinkens, indeed."
Sam laughed, clearly amused. "Think about it," he said, rising. He grinned and put his hat on. "Of course, we would draw up a contract negotiating the assets you'd receive from such a transaction. Our marriage would be, after all, merely a business agreement."
Seton stared at him, astounded. All the other Callahan brothers had romanced their women like princes of yore. They'd practically thrown themselves at their lady of choice, not content until they'd won her over with great fanfare and a wedding at Rancho Diablo. The brides had all worn the infamous and stunning magic wedding dress, and the wives still glowed, as if marriage to a Callahan was the best thing next to breathing air and drinking water.
"Are you insane? Certifiably insane?" she demanded, reconsidering using her high heel to deliver his just deserts.
"No," Sam said, "just lazy, like I said." He grinned the famous Callahan smile that made ladies swoon. "Think about it, Nancy Drew. Let me know if you change your mind."
"I won't," Seton said. "You can bet your boots on that, Counselor."
"It's a good offer. Probably the best one you'll ever get." He winked again.
"Like the offer you made Mr. Jenkins recently? That if he dropped the lawsuit you wouldn't sue him for his land and every last dime he had?"
"Aw," Sam said, walking to the door, "I was trying to go easy on the old dog. I'd considered bringing up charges for bribery, misuse of taxpayer funds, et cetera, et cetera. There were about twenty charges I could have brought, none of them frivolous, and some with certain jail time attached. But at the end of the day, I decided to give the old fart a break." Sam tipped his hat to her. "I have a kind and generous soul."
He walked out, whistling as he went down the hall. Seton moved to the window, watching him amble across the street to Banger's Bait and Tackle. Several bachelor-ettes accosted him, and Sam put his arm around them all. They moved as a group into the restaurant, like an amoeba that grew as it moved.
"The most annoying man on the planet," Seton muttered. She locked her office doorthere was no appointment, of course; she didn't have any scheduled for the entire weekand took an aspirin. Then she sank into her wooden chair, looked around her bare office and wondered if she'd made a terrible mistake returning to Diablo to see if there was anything between Sam and her.
"Take off to Alaska," Seton said, disgusted, and closed her eyes. "More like slither off."
If that was the famous Callahan idea of romance, she wanted no part of it.