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Nolan rolled to a stop in the parking area at the Courtyard and looked around. The four-mile drive out of Royal had been pleasant, quite a difference from the Southern California freeway traffic that was a part of his daily grind back home.
Home. He grunted. Royal, Texas, was really his home, not the sparsely furnished luxury apartment he slept and occasionally ate in back in LA. But he hadn't lived here in Royal, or even been back, in coming up on seven years. Even now he'd chosen to check into a hotel rather than stay with his parents. The reminders of his old life and old hopes were still too fresh, too raw. He gave his head a slight shake, as if to jog his mind back on track, and pushed open the door to the brand-new SUV he'd hired for his visit. He alighted from the vehicle, grabbed his suit jacket from the backseat and pulled it on before taking a moment to adjust pristine white shirt cuffs.
The wind cut right through the finely woven wool of his suit. It seemed even Armani couldn't protect you from a frigid Texan winter breeze. Nor were highly polished handmade shoes immune to the dust of the unsealed parking lot, he noted with a slight grimace of distaste. But when had he gotten so prissy? There'd been a time when even baby spit hadn't bothered him.
A shaft of pain lanced through him. It still hurt as if it was yesterday. Nolan buttoned his jacket and straightened his shoulders. He'd known coming back would be hard, that it might rip the scabs off wounds he'd thought already healed. But what he hadn't expected were these blindsiding moments when those old hurts threatened to drive him back down on his knees.
Pull it together, he willed silently, clenching his jaw tight. He'd lived through far worse than these random memories that were all that was left of his old life. He could live through this. It was time to harden back up and get to work.
As private attorney for Rafiq Bin Saleed, Nolan was here to do a job for one of Rafiq's companies, Samson Oil. He loved his workparticularly loved the cut and parry of entering into property negotiations on behalf of his boss and friend. The fact that doing so now brought him back to the scene of his deepest sorrow was tempered only by the fact that he also got to spend some time with his parents on their home turf. They weren't getting any younger and his dad was already making noises about retiring. From personal experience working there, Nolan knew that his dad's family law practice was demanding, but he couldn't quite reconcile himself to the fact that his dad was getting ready to scale down, or even walk away, from the practice he'd started only a few years out of law school.
Again Nolan reminded himself to get back on track. Obviously he'd have to work harder. Being back home after a long absence had a way of derailing a man when he least expected itbut that wouldn't earn him any bonuses when it came to crunch time with his boss. He looked around the area that had been christened the Courtyard. The name fit, he decided as he took in the assembly of renovated ranch buildings that housed a variety of stores and craftsmen. His research had already told him that the tenants specialized in arts and crafts with artisanal breads and cheeses also on sale, while the central area was converted into a farmer's market most Saturday mornings.
To Nolan's way of thinking, it was an innovative way to use an old run-down and unprofitable piece of land. So what the hell did Rafiq want with it? He knew for a fact that there was no oil to be found in the surrounding area. Hell, everyone who grew up in and around Royal knew thatwhich kind of raised questions as to what Samson Oil wanted the land for. So far, Rafiq's quest to buy up property in Royal failed to make economic sense to Nolan.
Sure, he was giving owners who were still battered and struggling to pull their lives together after the tornado a chance to get away and start a new life, but what did Rafe plan to do with all the land he'd acquired?
Nolan reminded himself it wasn't his place to ask questions but merely to carry out the brief, no matter how much of a waste of money it looked like to him. Rafiq had his reasons but he wasn't sharing them, and it had been made clear to Nolan that it was his place to see to the acquisition of specific parcels of landwhether they were for sale or not. And that's exactly what he was going to do.
Regrettably, however, it appeared that Winslow Properties, despite their shaky financial footing, were not open to selling this particular parcel of land. It was up to him to persuade them otherwise. He'd hoped some of the tenants would be more forthcoming about their landlord but so far, on his visits to the stores, he'd found them to be a closemouthed bunch. Maybe they were all just scared, he thought. Royal had been through a lot. No one wanted to rock the boat now.
There was one tenant he'd yet to have the opportunity to talk to. He recalled her name from his memoryRaina Patterson. From what he understood she might be closer to Mellie Winslow than some of the other tenants. Maybe Ms. Patterson could give him the angle he needed to pry this property from the Winslow family's grip.
He began to walk toward a large red barn at the bottom of the U-shape created by the buildings. The iron roof had been proudly painted with the Texas flag. The sight of that flag never failed to tug at him; as much as he'd assimilated to his California lifestyle, he'd always be Texan.
Looking around, Nolan understood why the Winslow family had, after initial interest in Samson Oil's offer, grown cagey at the idea of selling this little community and the land it was on. For a town that was still rebuilding, this was an area of optimism and growth. Selling out from underneath everyone was bound to create unrest and instability all over again. Not everyone here could just pick up and create a new life in a new town or state like he had.
Damn, and there he was again. Thinking of the past and of what he'd lost. His wife, his son. He should probably have sent someone else on the legal team to do this job but Rafiq had been adamant he handle it himself. He mentally shrugged. It was the price he paid for the obscenely high salary he earnedhe could live with that as long as he didn't ever have to live here again, with his memories.
Raina made a final tweak of the pine boughs and tartan ribbons she'd used to decorate the antique mantelpiece and looked around her store with a sense of pride and wonder. Her store. Priceless by name and by nature. She'd been here in the renovated red barn a month now. She still couldn't quite believe that a year after the tornado that had leveled her original business and much of the town of Royal, she'd managed to rebuild her inventory and relocate her business rather than just fold up altogether.
It certainly hadn't been easy, she thought as she moved through the store and let her hand drift over the highly polished oak sewing table she'd picked up at an estate sale last weekbut it had been worth it.
Now all she had to do was hold on to it. A ripple of disquiet trickled down her spine. Her landlord, Mellie Win-slow, had been subdued yesterday when she'd visited Raina but had said she was doing everything she could to ensure that her father's company, Winslow Properties, didn't sell the Courtyard.
Raina needed to know this wasn't all going to be ripped away from her a second time. She didn't know if she had it in her to start over again. Losing her store on Main Street, and most of her underinsured inventory of antiques, had just about sent her packing from the town she'd adopted as her own four years ago. She had to make this work, for herself and for her little boy.
No matter which way she looked at it, though, she still couldn't understand why anyone would be interested in buying the dried-up and overused land, let alone an oil company. If only Samson Oilwho'd been buying land left, right and center around Royalwould go away and let her have the peace and security she'd been searching for her whole life. Heck, it wasn't even as if they seemed to be doing anything with the properties they'd bought up. At the rate Samson Oil was going, Royal would become a ghost town.
Raina turned and smiled at her son, Justin, or JJ as he was known, as he proudly showed off the ice cream cone her dadhis namesakehad just bought him. JJ was three going on thirteen most of the time, but today he was home from day care because he'd been miserable with a persistent cold. He was back to being the little boy who wanted his mommy and his "G'anddad" most of all. The theory had been that he'd rest on the small cot she had in her office out back, but theory had been thrown to the wind when JJ had heard his beloved granddad arrive to help Raina move some of the heavier items in the store.
Looking at JJ now, she began to wonder if she'd been conned by the little rascal all along. The little boy had protested his granddad's departure most miserably, but he was all smiles now with an ice cream cone and the promise of a sleepover on the weekend.
"Lucky you," she answered squatting down to JJ's eye level. "Can I have some?"
JJ pulled the cone closer to him, distrust in his eyes. "No, Mommy. G'anddad said it mine."
Raina pouted. "Not even one little lick?"
She saw the indecision on his face for just a moment before he proffered the dripping cone in her direction. "One," he said very solemnly.
Raina licked off the drips before they hit the floor and theatrically sighed in pleasure. "That's so yummy. Can I have more?" she teased, reaching for JJ's wrist.
"No more, Mommy! Mine!" JJ squealed and turned and ran, laughing hysterically as Raina growled and lumbered playfully behind him.
Through her son's shrieks of delight, Raina heard the bell tinkle over the main door, signaling a potential customer.
"Justin Junior, you stop right there! No running through the store," she called out, but it was futile. JJ was barreling away from her at top speed.
She rounded the corner just in time to hear a muffled "oof!" as JJ ran straight into the man who'd just entered the store. The man was wearing a very expensive looking suit, which, she groaned inwardly, now wore a fair portion of JJ's ice cream cone, right at the level of the man's groin. JJ rapidly backed away. The stranger looked up, a startled expression on his face as his eyes met hers. A frisson of something she couldn't quite put her finger on ran between them like a live current. It unnerved her and made her voice sharp.
"JJ! Apologize to the gentleman, right now."
She couldn't help iteven though it was her fault for chasing him, she couldn't prevent the note of censure that filled her voice. And she still felt unsettled by that look she'd just exchanged with a total stranger. A look that left her feeling things she had no right to feel. Raina dragged her attention back to the disaster at hand and searched around for something to offer the man to help him clean up.
The only pieces of fabric she had close by were a set of handmade lace doilies from the early twentieth century. She certainly couldn't afford to lose inventory, but then again, nor could she afford to lose a potential customer either.
JJ turned his little face up to hers. His blue eyes, so like her own, filled with tears that began to spill down his still-chubby cheeks. His lower lip began to quiver. He dropped what was left of his cone on the floor and ran to her, burying his face in her maxi skirt as if he could make himself invisible.
"Hey, no harm done," the man said, his voice slightly gruff and at odds with his words.
Raina definitely noticed a hint of Texas drawl as she glanced from her son to the customer, who, despite that initial look of shock, now appeared unfazed by the incident. He reached into his suit pocket and pulled out an honest-to-God white handkerchief. Was that a monogram in the corner? Raina didn't think they had such things anymore.
"I'm so sorry, sir. Here, let me," she started, reaching for the cotton square.
"Might be best if I handle this myself," the man replied.
Oh, heavens, she was such an idiot. Of course he'd have to handle it himself. It was his groin, after all. She had no business touching any man's trousers, let alone there. She gently set JJ to one side and got busy picking up the cone that he'd dropped on the floor, gathering the sticky mess in her left hand.
"JJ, can you go fetch me the tea towel that's hanging up in the kitchen?" she asked her son. "And no running!"
It was too late. JJ raced away as if he couldn't wait to put distance between himself and the mess he'd created.
The stranger finally smiled and Raina looked up at himreally looked this timeand felt a punch of attraction all the way to the tips of her toes. Before she could answer, JJ was back and, ridiculously glad of the distraction, Raina used the cloth to wipe up the residue from the floor and then wrapped up the cone in the towel to deal with later. Her customer had likewise dealt with the mess on his trousers.
"See, all cleaned up," he said, rolling up the handkerchief and shoving it in his pocket again.
Raina cringed at the cost of getting all that fine tailoring back into pristine condition again. "But the stain. Please, let me get your suit dry cleaned for you."
"No, seriously, it's no bother. Is this your boy? JJ is it?"
She nodded and watched as the man squatted down so he was at eye level with JJ, who had cautiously turned his head around when he'd heard his name. She couldn't help but notice how the fabric of the stranger's trousers caught snugly across his thighs and, despite hastily averting her gaze, she also couldn't stop the disconcerting rush of acute feminine awareness that welled inside her.
"Hey, JJ, no harm done, except to your ice cream. I'm sorry about that, champ." When Raina started to protest that he had nothing to be sorry for, he merely put up one hand and kept his attention on her little boy. "Are you okay?"