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"You're not Angelina Fairbanks."
"I knew that." Abby Fairbanks smiled at the man who had rung her front doorbellinsistentlyinterrupting an excellent game of Candy Land with her nephew. She brushed a clump of dark curls out of her eyes so she could get a better look at the tall and sullen stranger.
He studied a photo in his hand and then looked at her again. His dark brown eyes gave nothing away, but his frown deepened. "This is supposed to be the address of A. Fairbanks who moved here from Denver. Is Angelina here?"
Abby reached out and tipped the edge of the photo so she could see the image. It was Lena all right, from a few years ago when they lived in Denver, and it looked as if it had been taken at one of the parties during which her sister had partaken of more than one mood-altering substance.
She looked up at him and gave him a long steady not-quite glare.
"I guess that would depend on who you are." And what you want with my sister, mister. He didn't look like the law, thankfully, because Lena had cleaned up her act.
The man eyed her suspiciously.
Abby fingered a button at the V of her flowered Henley-style shirt and then tugged down the edge of the hem that must have flipped up when she sat on the floor playing with five-year-old Kyle. When she realized these twitchy actions probably made her look less confident than she wanted to look, she put one hand on the doorknob and stood up straighter.
"What do you mean, it depends on who I am?" he asked.
The man's rumpled blue-and-white-striped dress shirt had a small drop of something redketchup hopefullyon the front of it, and the quilted leather bomber jacket he wore looked high fashion, or rather
well, she'd think girlie if he didn't look so hot in it. Whoever he was, he had traveled far away from home.
"Montana's a big state and St. Adelbert is a small out-of-the-way town. We don't get many strangers here, especially on our doorsteps. It makes us cautious." Abby hoped the nudge acted like a warning shot fired over his head.
"It's important that I speak with Angelina. Is she here or not?" He widened his stance to look more intimidating. He didn't need to. His muscular body and deep frown were enough for that.
Abby suddenly felt something she hadn't felt since she moved back to the small town of St. Adelbert.
What if there was something in Lena's past she didn't know about, something bad enough to have some city man chase her down?
"I'll be back in a few minutes, sweetie," she called over her shoulder to her nephew, who no doubt was already getting anxious to continue their game. Then she stepped out onto the dull gray porch badly in need of paint and pulled the door closed behind her. She was safe outside. In a town this size, where everyone loved to know everyone else's business, all she needed to do was call loudly and at least three neighbors with weapons of some sort would converge. Even if it was just one of the gray-haired women across the street with a cast-iron skillet.
The man stepped back toward the wooden railing. His short dark hair looked as if it got the tender loving care of a city barber, no, make that a stylist. His nails were neat and his skin, probably a pale shade before he left home, had been cast with a pink tinge from exposure to the harsh mountain sun.
Things could go any which way. She could push and he could push back harder. She took a deep breath and decided the best thing to do was to keep things light, until he did something to actually threaten her or hers.
"If you're a bill collector, she's out of the country. If you're the police, she didn't do it. If you're a suitor
" Which Abby definitely knew he was not. Her sister would have told her about any hotties she had on hold. "She said I should stand in for her."
She gave him an impeccably polite smile, hoping that last little bit would scare him off. It would most men who preferred her pretty, vivacious sister, with the flowing auburn hair and bright blue eyes.
His dark brows pulled together. He must be trying to figure out which of the options he was. She almost chuckled, but stayed silent. Let him fill the void.
A few long seconds passed. This man wasn't a very good void filler because he just stared back at her.
She held her smile.
He didn't smile at all.
"Where is she?" he finally asked.
Before Abby could respond, the door behind her flew open. She spun and bent over her five-year-old nephew, putting her body between the man and the child. The boy looked up at her with his big blue eyes, her sister's eyes. "Aunt Abby, can we finish our game now?"
She put her hand on his blond head, curly hair like hers, not straight like his mother's. "Go back inside, Kyle sweetie."
"Who's out there?" Kyle tried to see around her, but the big city had taught her caution on the border of paranoia, and where Kyle was concerned, everyone was to be suspected first. Trust needed to be well earned.
Abby physically turned Kyle around and pushed him gently into the house. "I'll be in very soon. Why don't you pour us each a glass of milk, and I'll get cookies down when I come in."
"Yippee, cookies," the five-year-old shouted as he ran toward the kitchen at the back of the house. A cookie bribe. The bad-aunt police should be after her any minute.
"And pick up your toys," she called after him and then slowly pulled the berry-colored front door closed again. When she turned back to the stranger, he suddenly seemed taller, stronger, and she needed him away from the house, away from Kyle. She stepped off the porch and down onto the sidewalk bordered with unruly wildflowers.
"I'm Angelina's sister. Who are you and what do you want with her?" she asked as he descended the steps.
"My name is Reed Maxwell." He didn't offer his hand. She probably didn't look as if she would accept the offer.
"Maxwell as in Jesse Maxwell's relative?" One of the rich snobs? One of a bunch of people who didn't care about anyone except themselves? Those were the kinds of things the man who rented the living quarters above her garage had said about his family.
"Of course you are. He has a picture of your family, though it's several years old." Like about a decade or so. The brothers in the photo were gangly teens. This one had definitely developed a man's body. "Jesse hasn't changed much."
Reed Maxwell nodded. "I wanted to ask Angelina if she knows where he is. According to what I found out in Denver, she knew Jesse when they lived there." The words sounded like an accusation. Maybe Jesse was right. Snobs.
Light. Keep it light, she reminded herself. "He
said none of his family gives
well, he said something about
a rat's ass, about
none of his family giving one.sorry.about him."
The man smiled and brought one hand up to rest on his hip under the lower edge of his jacket.
Of all the things Abby expected from him, a big grin was not it. Some of the tiredness lifted from his face, brightening his whole appearance and making himwellyummy.
"What," she asked, jerking her wandering mind away from thoughts of yummy, "are you smiling about?"
"I know I'm on the right track. The 'rat's ass' hyperbole would be the kind of thing Jesse would say about us." He put the photo in the inside pocket of his leather jacket. "And he's probably right for the most part, but I do need to speak with Angelina or Jesse if you know where he is."
"Angelina's not here. Neither is Jesse."
"Jesse was here? In St. Adelbert?"
For almost a year. How could a family not know where one of their own was for that long? "He lived, lives above my garage in the apartment there."
"With your sister."
"Angelina doesn't live here."
"So, do you know where Jesse is or when he'll be back?"
Her shoulders drooped when she thought of her tenant. "I wish I knew. He just sort of disappears sometimes. He's been gone for over two months this time."
"And that's different?" Reed Maxwell shifted one foot up onto the lower step. Dress shoes, those slim, well-fitting ones that spoke of moneywith laces and everythingand a scuff on the toe of one. A very long way from home. Chicago, more precisely, a rich suburb north of Chicago according to Jesse.
"I haven't heard anything from him," she explained. "Not that he usually calls and he never writes, but I thought since he's gone so long he would have let me know he's all right. Has he called you in the past couple months?"
The man shook his head thoughtfully as he rubbed his fingertips along his jawline where a long day's worth of dark whiskers grew. "Are you sure Jesse and Angelina aren't together somewhere?"
"Angelina is out of the country. Jesse said he was going hiking in Utah, but that was only supposed to be for a couple weeks."
"And you didn't think to contact his family." His grin had long since left and the tiredness returned.
I hope you're not this rude when you're well rested. "I sent a letter two weeks ago to an address I found in his things. I haven't heard a peep in response."
"Even though you believed we didn't give acare?"
"Make up your mind, please. I should write. I shouldn't have written. Jesse's a friend of my sister. She's worried and so am I. I did talk it over with the sheriff."
"Well, the last time Jesse went missing for almost a month and I was about to go file a missing person's report, he showed up. I told him about it and he got really sad, asked me never to do that. So this time the sheriff said to give Jesse time. I was going to wait till I heard from his family before I did anything, um, rash. For all I knew he was home in Illinois."
The man looked out over the mountains rising beyond the town. Then he looked back at her and almost drilled through her with his dark eyes. "I'd like to check out his apartment."
She involuntarily took a step back, her heel coming down in a clump of white yarrow releasing the stringent, musty smell of the injured plant.
"I don't think I can let you in without Jesse's permission," she said as she stepped forward to take back the ground she had given.
He must have realized he was coming on strong, because he put up a hand in a conciliatory gesture, an uncalloused hand that had never held a rope or the reins of a workhorse. "I don't mean to cause trouble. I'd just like to find my brother. How much back rent does he owe you?"
"Why do you think he owes money?"
"Some things don't usually change much over time."
"Three months." And the edge of financial oblivion lived a constant threat right under her toes as compounding interest worked heavily against her. The last three weeks.
"I'll pay the three months and I'll pay for next month.
Will that buy me entrance?" He reached in his pocket for his wallet. Not a wallet, a money clip, of course.
She couldn't meet his probing gaze without a chance to think. She turned away to study an old red pickup passing slowly in the street. She had no idea how she planned to find the mortgage payment due three weeks ago, and her SUV was also late for an oil change. The house needed work and Kyle needed clothes that would fit, and soon. School started next month.
"It feels mercenary," she said quietly. Or worse, she thought. Their mother had said again and again that taking money from a man without good reason was wrong. On top of a winning personality, Delanna Fairbanks did have some morals. "With Jesse missing."
"And you need the money."
She swung back to face him. "What makes you think I need
He pointed at the sagging corner of the porch roof.
Abby pushed the blowing curls from her face again.
"My sister promised to live here and to pay rent." Now Abby had only the income from her nurse's job at the town's one medical clinic. "And Jesse was never very good at paying rent on time."
She could turn him down, or because she had always cared for Kyle and seen to his needs, she could swallow her pride and do what needed to be done.
"You can get Jesse to pay me back," he offered.
She looked into his eyes and thought she saw a hint of amusement. They both knew Jesse wasn't going to pay his brother back.
"Okay," she said, feeling as if she was betraying Jesse while Jesse's brother peeled hundred-dollar bills off the wad without even asking what she charged.
When she took the cash she realized it was more than she thought. "This is too much."
"I'm sure Jesse has cost you more than what I've given you."
She found herself smiling. "He does have a way of making his problems seem like mine. And he has such an innocent way of doing it."
The man's expression lightened again. Maybe he was remembering the delightful, funny way his brother had of being irresponsible.
"Um, the door's not locked," she said. "You can let yourself in."
"So I could have walked in and you'd have had to get the sheriff to stop me if you didn't like it."
"You could probably walk into many places here in St. Adelbert" he gave her a skeptical look and she continued "but you would not want to cross our Sheriff Potts."
He nodded and turned toward the garage located on the other side of her side yard.
Abby watched his confident stride. He walked as if he were used to getting what he wanted. He probably never disappeared for weeks at a time and never in his life let his hair and beard grow long like Jesse'sthough he might look good with longer hair. In fact, he'd make a great wild mountain man.