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He wasn't here.
No surprise, really, thought Liberty Beckett. She'd arriveda glance at the clock on the wall behind the long counter confirmed itfifteen minutes early.
Relief battled with worry for control of her emotions. Was he still coming? Had he changed his mind? A deep breath failed to quell the tension that had been her constant companion this past week.
"You want a table or a booth, honey?"
Liberty blinked. A plump waitress had appeared from nowhere, cradling a stack of oversize plastic menus in the crook of her arm.
"Um, I'm not sure." She took stock of the restaurant that was as familiar to her as the local market or corner gas station. She must have eaten here two, no, three hundred times. The lunch crowd had long departed, and the dinner crowd wasn't due for another hour. A lone customer sat at the counter, nursing a cup of coffee.
Really? In this heat?
Liberty wiped her damp forehead. "I think I'll wait until my
" Her what? Father? Technically, yes. "Until my, um, other party arrives."
"Sure thing." The waitress, someone Liberty knew by sight after all her years of patronage, gave her a funny look before bustling off.
Other party? Where had that come from?
Liberty silently chided herself and took a seat on the bench just inside the restaurant's front door. Better to wait for Mercer here than at a table or a booth. No awkward pushing out of her seat, going for a hug when he only wanted to shake her hand.
Mercer. Her father. Not just the man who was father to Liberty's half sister and brother. No, make that full sister and full brother. Her mother had lied. Since the day Liberty was born. Probably from the day she was conceived. For twenty-four years.
How could she?
Why did she?
Liberty had sacrificed a lot of sleep recently, tossing that question around and around in her head. At one time, she might have understood her mother's motives for keeping such a huge secret. But her fatherthe word still sounded strange to herhad been sober for longer than Liberty could remember. At least, according to her brother's infrequent communications. Several times a year their mother called Ryder, usually on birthdays or holidays. He never called them.
The rift that had developed between her parents before Liberty was born had only widened through the decades, becoming impossible to repair after Ryder left to live with their father. Could that really be twenty-two years ago? Liberty, a toddler at the time, didn't remember Ryder ever living with them. It had always been just her, her sister, Cassidy, and their mother for so very long.
Three women running the Easy Money Rodeo Arena. Probably no one had thought they'd succeed in a predominantly man's world. But they'd proved the skeptics wrong. How different Liberty's life might have been if she'd known Mercer Beckett was her father and not some I-can't-remember-his-name cowboy passing through, as her mother always claimed.
Why had she lied? Liberty kept coming back to the same question. Maybe Mercer could provide the answer, if she worked up the courage to ask him.
The door to the restaurant swung open, and Liberty swore her heart exploded inside her chest. She turned at the same instant a wave of adrenaline swept through her.
Not him! She hugged her middle and tried to collect her wildly scattered wits.
"Morning, Liberty. Is this seat taken?"
Looking up into the tanned, handsome face of Deacon McCrea, she murmured, "N-no," and automatically scooted to her left, making room for him. "Go right ahead."
He smiled as he sat, his brown eyes crinkling attractively at the corners. "I promise not to crowd you."
Only he did. His large frame consumed over half the available space on the bench. Their elbows inadvertently brushed.
"Sorry," he said.
"No worries." Liberty shifted her purse to her other side.
There was only one bench in the Flat Iron Restaurant. She didn't dare suggest Deacon wait outside. He'd melt. A hundred degrees in the shade was typical for summers in Reckless, Arizona. Today's temperatures exceeded that.
Besides, she and Deacon were friends. In a manner of speaking. Acquaintances for sure. He boarded his two horses at the Easy Money and, since his recent return, regularly entered the arena's team penning competitions.
She'd seen him around a lot, at the arena and in town, and that was okay with her. More than once, she'd intentionally put herself in his path, hoping he'd get the hint and ask her out. So far, no luck. But she wasn't giving up.
She sensed her interest in him was reciprocated, even if he hadn't acted on it. Yet.
Any other day, their unexpected encounter would be a perfect opportunity for her to flirt and hint at hooking up. Except Liberty was much too anxious about meeting Mercer to relax, much less ply her feminine wiles.
Biting her lower lip, she studied the clock on the wall again. Ten minutes to go.
Deacon removed his cowboy hat and balanced it on his knee, drawing her attention. "Are you meeting someone, too?" she asked, disliking the slight tremor in her voice.
Damn Mercer for making her nervous. Damn her mother for the lies she'd told.
He had nice eyes. Dark and fathomless when he was concentrating, sparkling when he laughed. "Ah, business," she said. "I usually see you on horseback and forget you're an attorney."
"Thank you for not calling me a shyster or a shark." She drew back to stare at him. "Do people really do that?"
"Not to my face, anyway." He chuckled. "I've been called worse."
Einstein. The cruel taunt suddenly came back to Liberty. She'd been in junior high, and Deacon in high school, but she remembered when he'd worked afternoons and weekends at her family's rodeo arena. More than that, she remembered the terrible treatment he'd received at the hands of his peers, all because school hadn't come easy for him.
Obviously, things had changed. Graduating law school and passing the bar required enormous intelligence and dedication.
"I saw a sign for your office on Sage Brush Drive." He nodded. "I just moved into the space a few weeks ago."
"It's a good area."
Good area? What was she, the local real estate agent? Liberty suppressed a groan. Nerves again. The most banal of comments were issuing from her mouth. Deacon's proximity wasn't helping matters.
She briefly wondered what had happened to him in the eleven years he'd been away from Reckless, besides becoming an attorney. He'd departed under such bad circumstances, shortly after the horrible bull-goring accident. Some said he'd run away, an action that proved his guilt.
Liberty refused to believe for one second he'd allowed the bull to escape and injure that cowboy. Deacon had been the Becketts' most responsible hand. Unfortunately, her mother hadn't seen it that way and, along with others, pointed the finger of blame at him. No wonder he'd left.
The door to the restaurant whooshed open again, causing her to jerk in response. Deacon looked curiously at her but didn't comment. Thank goodness.
A trio of boisterous young men entered on an explosion of laughter. Tourists. Judging from their sunburned faces, they'd spent the day at Roosevelt Lake thirty miles up the highway. Liberty pegged them as water-skiers rather than fishermen. Their slip-on canvas sneakers, wraparound sunglasses and swim trunks covered by baggy T-shirts gave them away.
Outdoor enthusiasts made up only a small portion of the visitors to Reckless, and they mostly happened to stop on their way to and from Phoenix. The rest were cowfolk. The Easy Money Rodeo Arena and its four annual PCA rodeos made Reckless a regular stop on the circuit for competitors from all over North America.
A colorful and lawless history only added to the appeal. The town's first citizens were, in fact, a notorious gang of outlaws known for their "reckless" escapades. They hadn't settled in the area as much as hidden out in the nearby hills.
Once, Mercer had been a large part of the Easy Money, running it with Liberty's mother, and an active member of the community. Then, he'd started drinking.
Would he be welcomed back? Certainly not by her mother. Liberty had yet to say anything about the meeting to anyone, choosing instead to wait and see how it went.
She forced herself not to check the clock a third time and focused on Deacon. "Have you been getting a lot of new clients?" All right, the question wasn't quite as banal as the others.
"Some. Reckless is still a small town."
"True. But we have no attorneys. The closest ones are in Globe." Almost an hour away. Liberty should know. She'd made more than one trip there to deliver various legal documents to the Becketts' attorney.
"I'm hoping to corner the market."
He had a dry sense of humor. That was new. Deacon had been painfully shy as a teenager, no doubt the result of being constantly picked on by his peers. She'd felt sorry for him. Not only did he have difficulty with school, his home life was a mess. The kind of mess people in a small town loved to gossip about.
As a result, he'd pulled at her teenage heartstrings. Now he pulled at her heart for an entirely different reason.
What did he think of the grown-up her? Oh, if only she weren't in such a state about meeting Mercer, she'd find out.
"I'm sure you'll do well." An idea suddenly occurred to her. "Hey, maybe I could talk to my mom about hiring you. Our liability agreement is probably really outdated."
His features instantly clouded. "I appreciate it, but I have to say no. Conflict of interest."
"Because we already have an attorney?"
"I'm sorry, I can't discuss it." He appeared genuinely distressed.
Though there was no real reason, Liberty felt hurt. She'd been sure their attraction these past two months since his return was mutual.
Wait! That must be it. He didn't want to take on the Becketts as clients because then he couldn't ask her out.
She said nothing more. Just sat and smiled to herself, her fingers twisting the jade ring on her right hand. She had a whole new reason to be nervous.
The sudden sound of the front door opening had her jumping up from her seat. It was him. Mercer! She recognized him from the pictures she'd researched on the internet.
Their glances connected, and her knees turned to butter.
"Liberty?" Removing his cowboy hat, Mercer combed his fingers through his too long gray hair.
Beside her, Deacon also stood. If not for his hand on her elbow, she might have wobbled ungracefully. Fortunately, he just as quickly released her
and went nowhere.
Oh, this was awkward. For several lengthy seconds, they all three stared at one another.
"You're so pretty." Mercer's gaze took her in from head to toe as if she were a newly minted marvel. "Just like your mother."
Liberty swallowed, surprised to find a lump the size of a golf ball lodged in her throat. She did look like Sunny Beckett and nothing at all like her brother and sister, which was probably why she'd never directly questioned the lies her mother told.
But behind Sunny's back? That was an altogether different thing. The frequent tales she'd heard from the townsfolk about Mercer and her mother, with their many conflicting versions, was why Liberty had begun to dig into her parentage.
Her father hadn't been hard to find. She'd started searching a few months ago after a conversation with Ricky, her team penning partner. The subject of Mercer came upit often did even after all these years. Ricky had told her about Mercer being at the Wild West Days Rodeo twenty-five years ago. He'd been adamant and claimed to have a photo somewhere. Liberty's mother always swore Mercer had left before the rodeo. Liberty couldn't forget the conversation and began poking around. Those who could remember confirmed Ricky's story.
It had required all of Liberty's courage to contact Mercer. He'd been nice and readily taken her call. Turned out, he'd had his own suspicions about being her father. The DNA test was simple enough to conduct. Once the results were in, they'd made their plans.
And now he stood before her, his arms open. She went into them with only the slightest hesitation.
He smelled like aftershave. Liberty inhaled deeply, committing the scent to memory.
Mercer hugged her warmly. "There, there, girl."
Only when he'd murmured the endearment did she notice she was crying. Wiping at her cheeks, she straightened and reluctantly withdrew. So that was what it felt like to be held in a father's embrace.
"Do you want to sit?" she asked, her voice quavering.
"Sure thing." A grin spread across his whiskered face.
For an instant, Liberty saw her brother, Ryder. Or, what Ryder would look like if he ever grinned. She couldn't recall seeing him happy. Maybe learning they shared the same father would change that. Maybe he'd come home, too.
Scanning the restaurant, she spotted the waitress heading toward the counter and motioned that she and Mercer would be taking a nearby booth.
"Come on." She led the way
only to pull up short after three steps and peer over her shoulder.
Deacon was following them. She'd forgotten all about him.
"Is there, um, something you want?"
He addressed Mercer rather than her. "Would you like me to wait here?"
"No." Mercer clasped Deacon's shoulder. "Join us."
"W-why?" Liberty stared at the two of them in confusion.
"Deacon is my attorney," Mercer said. "Your attorney?"
"I'll explain." He took over, directing them to a table rather than a booth.
Liberty followed him, her confusion mounting. Why did Mercer need legal counsel? And why bring his counsel to their meeting?
"What's going on? Tell me," she insisted the moment they were seated, Mercer to her left and Deacon across from her. Was that intentional? In the wide-open restaurant, she felt cornered.
"Liberty," Mercer began slowly, "I'm so glad you contacted me. Learning you're my daughter, well, it's just about the best news I've ever had." He paused, appearing to choose his words carefully. "The thing is, your mother and I have a complicated history. And a long-standing business arrangement."
"I own half of the Easy Money. Not only that, your mother owes me a considerable amount of money. I'm here to meet you and to get to know you. But I'm also here to collect what is rightfully mine. Deacon has agreed to represent me. While I don't want to bring a lawsuit against your mother
Liberty had trouble understanding the rest of what Mercer said. It was hard to hear him above the roar of her world crashing down around her.
Deacon watched Liberty's back as she all but bolted from the restaurant, his gut twisting into a tight knot. The meeting went exactly as he'd expected it would: not well.
He'd told Mercer when they met at his office yesterday that springing his true intentions on Liberty right from the get-go wasn't the best move. Mercer had been adamant. He and Liberty had both been denied the truth for years. He refused to start out his relationship with her by following in her mother's footsteps.