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She hated relying on a man.
Mia Saunders glanced around the filled-to-capacity community room at the Mountain View Apartments complex. It was already decorated for Thanksgiving and the tenants were hopeful that they would still be living here at the end of November.
At one of the many card tables were Emma and Charlie Lowery. They'd lived here for over twenty years. So had the Nordbergs, along with Second World War veteran and widower, Ralph Parkinson. They'd all come here for the same reasonaffordable rent gave seniors on fixed incomes some independence.
At the age of twenty-nine, Mia was an exception, one of the few, younger tenants who lived in the aging apartment complex.
"You've got to help us, Mia!"
She turned to tiny, gray-haired Nola Madison standing beside her. She was a widow who had lived in the complex since her husband's death ten years ago. With social security and a small pension, Nola could survive living alone here without burdening her children.
"Nola, I'm going to try, but I'm not sure how much I can do."
"You're a lawyer," Nola said, her soft hazel eyes seeming larger behind her bifocals.
"Not yet. I've only just started law school." That had been put on hold this past semester and she had no idea when she could start up again.
"But you will talk to the owner for us when he gets here."
"If he gets here," Mia added. So far that hadn't happened. They'd tried a half-dozen times to have a meeting with the man to discuss the fifty-year-old apartment complex's crumbling condition. No improvements had been done in years.
"It seems the new owner has been avoiding us."
"Well, he has good reason. He doesn't want to fix things any more than the last owner." Joe Carson, another of the elderly tenants, spoke up behind her. That got the crowd going.
Mia waved her hand and they quieted down. "This isn't getting us anywhere. In all fairness
" She glanced down at the paper. "Mr. Jarrett McKane only took possession of this property a few months ago."
"McKane," Nola repeated. "I wonder if he's any relation to the teacher at the high school, Kira McKane. My granddaughter, Hannah, talks about her all the time."
Joe stepped forward. "I don't care who he's related to, he has to take care of our demands."
Joe's wife, Sylvia, gasped. "What if he evicts us?"
That started more grumbles around the crowded room.
Mia eyed the tenants she'd gotten to know since coming to Winchester Ridge when her brother, Reverend Bradley Saunders, took over as pastor of the First Community Church a half mile away. She'd found a one-bedroom apartment in the affordable complex about three years ago when Brad and his wife, Karen, decided to make the small Colorado ranching community a permanent home. It was a perfect place for raising a family.
All Mia's life, it had been her brother who'd been there for her. Brad had never given up on his little sister, even when she gave up on herself. Over the years, he'd pulled her back from some pretty dark places, and let her know that she was important and loved. When their parents disowned her, Brad stood by her and helped her get her act together and get into college.
She'd do anything for him. Sadness washed over Mia, knowing she would never get the chance again.
Sam Parker hurried into the room and called out, "One of those fancy SUVs just pulled up. A shiny black one."
Those standing scurried to find a seat as if they'd been caught doing something wrong. Mia didn't rush much these days, but she felt the excitement and nervousness as she took a chair at the head table, and then turned her attention toward the door.
Nothing had prepared her for this man.
Jarrett McKane walked into the room as if he owned it. That was because he did. He was well over six feet, and his sheepskin jacket made him look ever bigger as his broad shoulders nearly filled the doorway. There was a brooding look in his ebony eyes that made him look intimidating.
It didn't work on her.
She was Preston Saunders's daughter. No one could intimidate like the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Though there was no doubt that Jarrett McKane could give good old Preston a run for the title. Intimidator.
She released a breath and put on a smile. "Mr. McKane. It's good of you to come."
Jarrett turned toward her, his eyes showing some surprise and interest, and he returned a smile, showing off a row of straight white teeth. Oh boy. He was going to try to charm her.
"That would be me."
He walked to the table, pulling off his leather gloves then he held out his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Saunders. I must say I've enjoyed your colorful letters."
She tried not to react as his large hand engulfed hers. Get down to business, she told herself and withdrew her hand.
"Well, they seem to have worked. You're here." She motioned to the chair across from her. "Please have a seat and we can begin."
Jarrett McKane didn't like this woman having the upper hand. Well, it wasn't going to last long. He eyed the pretty, long-haired brunette. Even tied back into a ponytail, those curls seemed to have a mind of their own. Her eyes caught his attention right off, a dark, smoky blue. She looked to be in her mid-twenties. He hated trying to guess women's ages, but he knew she was old enough.
He slipped off his jacket and she watched with interest. He liked that. Maybe this would be easier than he thought.
Mia Saunders glanced down at the paper in front of her. "As I stated in my letters, Mr. McKane, there are several apartments that need your immediate attention. The bathrooms in several of the units aren't working properly, and many of the heaters aren't functioning at all. They're outdated and possibly dangerous." She looked up. "The conditions here are becoming unlivable, Mr. McKane." She slid the list across the table to him. "We need you to fix these items immediately."
Jarrett read over the itemized page. He already knew it would cost him a fortune. "And the previous owner should have taken care of these problems."
"Since you are the current owner, Mr. McKane, it's your responsibility now."
He glared at her.
She ignored it. "I'm sure you bought this property at a reduced price, and a good businessman would know the condition of the place. And since you are the owner now, we're asking that you please address these problems."
Jarrett glanced around at the group. He hadn't expected to find this when he arrived, especially not mainly senior citizens. He pushed away any sentimentality. "I can't fix these problems."
"Can't or won't?" she retorted.
"I don't see how that matters."
"It does to us, Mr. McKane."
"Okay, for one thing, I haven't received any rent payment since I took over the property."
"And you won't until we see some good faith from you. Some of these people don't have hot water or heat. Winter is here."
"Then relocating you all is the only answer." He stood. "Because in a few months, I'll be tearing the place down."
The group gasped, but Mia Saunders still looked calm and controlled as she said, "I don't think so, Mr. McKane."
Jarrett was surprised by her assertiveness. He wasn't used to that, especially not from a woman. No that wasn't true, his sister-in-law, Kira, gave him "what for" all the time.
Ms. Saunders held up another piece of paper. "We all have leases giving us six months to relocate. When you bought the building, your lawyer should have told you about it. Unless you didn't use an attorney."
Dammit, he didn't have an answer to that.
"And you still have to honor our leases."
He shook his head. "Can't do it. I want to start demolition by the first of the new year. And I'm sure the town council will go along with me since this is the site for a new computer-chip plant. It's estimated to bring over a hundred jobs to this town." He saw the panicked looks on the tenant's faces and added, "And I'll help anyone who wants to be relocated, but I can't let you stay here for six months." Finished, he headed toward the door.
"You might not have a choice," Mia called to him.
He turned around, perversely enjoying the exchange. He liked the fire in her pretty eyes, the set of her jaw. He wondered if he could find a way to sway her loyalty. A little dinner and maybe some romancing might help his cause. "I don't think you can win this fight, Ms. Saunders. But I'm willing to discuss it with you, another time."
She rose from her chair and that was when he noticed her rounded belly. Pregnant? Damn, she's pregnant.
Mia Saunders seemed to enjoy the surprise. "You can count on it, when we see you in court."
Thirty minutes later, Jarrett was still thinking about the attractive Mia Saunders as he drove his Range Rover down the highway. He shook his head. What the hell was he doing fantasizing about a pregnant woman? A woman carrying another man's baby.
He turned off onto the road leading toward the McKane ranch. After selling off his part of the family cattle ranch, he hadn't called in here much to start with. He and his half brother, Trace, hadn't gotten along while they were growing up, but the past few years that had slowly begun to change.
Maybe he was getting soft. Of course, his brother's wife, Kira, had a lot to do with it.
Now, he was an uncle and he was crazy about his niece, Jenna. She could ask him to walk over hot coals, and he'd do it, smiling. At three years old, the toddler had his number.
He parked around the back of the house. They hadn't always been a happy family: he recalled just a while back when Trace and Kira were barely surviving a crumbling marriage. Kira's problems getting pregnant had put a strain on them that had nearly ended their five-year relationship. Then a miracle had happened, and now they had Jenna.
Climbing the back steps to the century-old ranch house, Jarrett's attention turned to another pregnant woman, Mia Saunders. It was true what they said about expectant mothers, they did have a glow about them. And unless he had been mistaken, she'd directed that rosy glow toward him.
He knocked on the door and walked in. "Everyone decent?" He peered into the kitchen, knowing he'd be welcome. That hadn't always been true. There was a time he'd tried everything to one-up his younger brother. In their youth, he had wanted nothing to do with the ranch, or with the half brother who'd gotten all the attention. So, after their father died, Jarrett had accepted his share in dollars.
It had taken them years to work out their differences. And with the help of Kira and a sweet little girl named Jenna they'd worked through a lot of their problems, mainly just trying to be brothers.
Kira stood at the stove. "We have a three-year-old. There isn't any time to get indecent." His sister-in-law smiled as she came to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Hi, Jarrett. It's good to see you."
"Hi, sis," he said, returning the hug. He'd used to have trouble with her being so demonstrative, but she said they were family, and that was how family acted.
Jarrett heard a squeal and little Jenna came charging into the room.
"Unca Jay. Unca Jay," the girl called.
Jarrett caught her up in his arms, swung her around, kissing her cheeks and blowing raspberries. "How's my Jenna girl today?"
The child's tiny mouth formed a pout. "Mommy put me in time-out. I was sad."
Kira arrived on the scene, brushing back her long blond hair. "Tell Uncle Jarrett what you did."
"I got into Mommy's makeup."
Suddenly, Jarrett could see the faint remnants of lipstick on her mouth. "Uh-oh."
"I just want to be pretty, like Mommy." She turned those big brown eyes on him. "Are you mad at me, too? "
"Never." He kissed her. "But you're already pretty, you don't need makeup." He glanced at Kira. "But remember you don't like anyone getting into your stuff, so you shouldn't get into other people's things."
"'Kay." She looked at her mom. "Can I play now? I promise to be good."
Kira nodded, and they watched the child run out of the room. She turned to Jarrett. "Thanks for backing me up."
He nodded. "I don't know how you ever punish her. It would tear me up."
"It part of being a parent." "That's a job I don't want."
Kira smiled. "You just haven't found the right woman."
He arched an eyebrow. "I've found a lot of women and I like it that way. There's safety in numbers." He winked at her. "Among other things."
She shook her head. "Like I said, you haven't found the right woman."
"But I found mine."
They both looked toward the door to see Trace. His brother went straight to his wife and kissed her. Jarrett hated the envy that engulfed him. To his surprise, his thoughts turned to Mia Saunders again. Well, damn.
"Hi, bro," Jarrett greeted him. "How's the cattle business?"
"If you came out here more, you'd know for yourself."
"If I came out here more, you'd put me to work. You know how I feel about ranching. I'm doing just fine the way things are."
"I take it you're still trying to get by on your looks and your wit. So what brings you out here?"
Jarrett shrugged. "Do I need a reason?"
Trace hugged his wife close. "Of course not. Stay for supper."
Jarrett smiled. "Don't mind if I do." Whatever had happened during their childhood didn't seem to mean much anymore. It had taken years, but Jarrett had finally realized that Trace wasn't competing with him. After they'd found natural gas on McKane land a few years ago, they'd worked together and ensured a prosperous future for them all.
They also found they could be friends.
Kira went to check on Jenna while Trace poured two mugs of coffee. He handed one to Jarrett and the brothers sat down at the large farm kitchen table.
"So, I hear you bought the old apartment buildings on Maple."
Jarrett frowned. He'd been trying to keep the project quiet. "Where did you hear that?"
"It's a small town. There aren't many secrets."
Kira returned. "We heard it at church last Sunday. One of your tenants, her brother used to be our pastor. Reverend Brad Saunders." She shook her head. "It was such a tragedy about their deaths."
"I don't go to church. What happened to them?"
"A few months ago Brad and his wife, Karen, went on a missionary trip and their small plane crashed in Mexico. Poor Mia."
"What about her husband?
Kira raised an eyebrow. "Mia doesn't have a husband."
Interest sparked in Jarrett, catching him off guard. "Surely the guy responsible for the baby will step up."
Kira exchanged a glance with Trace. "There is no guy to step up. It's not Mia's baby."