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By JANET DAILEY
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStacy stared out the window at the traffic rushing through the streets below. The simmering heat of Dallas in summer was held at bay by air-conditioning that made her feel cold all over. The somber gray and brown tones of the towering concrete buildings were oppressive, a reminder of the depression that had weighed on her ever since the unthinkable had happened. A little sigh escaped her as she let the curtain fall back in place and turned to face the older man behind the large walnut desk.
"Mr. Mills, you were Daddy's friend. You should understand more than anyone why I have to get away by myself to sort things out. It really doesn't make any difference if I'm in a city or a cabin in Texas."
"I don't agree, Stacy. As your father's attorney and closest friend, I wish you'd think it over a little more." Carter Mills took off his black-framed glasses and wiped them absently with his handkerchief.
She studied him for a long moment before replying. "Look, I'm not trying to run away or anything." Stacy ran a hand nervously over her bare arm. "I just need time to see where I fit in again."
"I can understand that." But Mills frowned. "Even so, a complete change of scene might do you good-"
"If you mean going someplace like Europe, the answer is no.I'd rather stay in Texas."
The attorney shook his head. "You don't have to. You're independent now and you don't need to worry about money."
Tears welled in her eyes. "Maybe not. But I wish-" She was too upset to finish the sentence but she was damned if she'd cry. Stacy fought silently for self-control.
"The death of someone dear always involves a difficult adjustment," Mills said gently.
"Tell me about it." Her remark was too softly spoken to be rude.
"Maybe I shouldn't say this, but you've always been headstrong," Mills went on. "All the same, I still don't see why you insist on hiding away out in the country."
Stacy Adams looked hesitantly at Carter Mills, Sr., wondering how she could make him understand why she had to go. Her father, Joshua Adams, had respected this man and trusted him. Her father. The words caught in her throat. Stacy glanced down at her hands clenched tightly in her lap. In a blue suit, she was the picture of respectability, but her life didn't quite match the image. Her mother had died shortly after Stacy was born, leaving her globe-trotting husband with the unfamiliar task of raising a child. Refusing kind offers from relatives to care for his little daughter, Joshua Adams had filled one of his suitcases with disposable diapers and cans of formula and carted the year-old baby off on his next foreign assignment. Life for father and daughter had been one long world tour with brief respites in big cities to catch their breath before starting out again, as he built his reputation as a freelance photographer. Foreign bureaus of newspapers and magazines were based all over the globe; Joshua and Stacy had been too.
But the Internet had changed everything about his business-except Joshua Adams's spirit of adventure.
Loving memories whirled through Stacy's mind-most vividly, her seventeenth birthday three years ago when her dad had smuggled a puppy into a plush New Orleans hotel. Cajun, he'd called the pup, in honor of his backwoods birthplace. The wiggling, playful puppy had grown into a huge German shepherd, devoted to his young mistress. Her father had predicted that Cajun would protect Stacy better than any guardian angel.
She had to wonder if her father knew how right he'd been, because it was Cajun who'd pulled her, unconscious, from the wreckage of the chartered plane before it burst into flames. The pilot and her father hadn't made it.
As she tried to blink back the tears that clouded her eyes, Stacy raised her head to meet the lawyer's affectionate gaze. Her brown eyes grew misty with tears as her mouth curved into a painful smile.
"I take it back, Stacy. Maybe going out in the wilderness will help you think things through. Joshua loved the West and never turned down an assignment that would take him there." Carter Mills rose from his chair and walked around to where Stacy was seated. "But remember, you're still a young woman, barely twenty, with your whole life ahead of you. He wouldn't have wanted you to miss any of it-not the good and definitely not the bad."
Stacy took the hand he offered and rose, her tailored suit enhancing the curves underneath. "I hoped you'd understand why I have to do this."
"Well, it's your decision. But there's a young guy I know who's rather upset about you leaving," Carter Mills said. "And I can't blame my son for wanting to treat you to the best clubs and nightlife that Dallas has to offer. Not that you need to have anyone pay your way, not with the inheritance your father left you."
She never could have imagined that it would come to as much as it had. But the rights to Joshua Adams's photos were worth a lot, although it was her father's creative legacy that meant the most to her.
"I'm afraid I haven't accepted the idea that I have money of my own yet," she told him. "Before, I was happy just to be with my dad, traveling wherever the wind blew-maybe I inherited his wanderlust."
"I think you did, Stacy."
"Anyway," she continued, reaching for her purse, "out there with just Cajun, Diablo, and miles of sky, I should be able to decide about the future."
Carter Mills shook his head. "Are you taking that fool horse, too? I had hoped you'd sold him long ago," the lawyer exclaimed with no attempt to hide his concern. "I have to say that I think you're making a big mistake taking him."
"Oh, Diablo isn't all that out-of-control. He's high-strung. There's a difference." Stacy smiled. "And you know very well that I'm an excellent horsewoman. Dad never would've allowed me to have Diablo if he didn't think I could handle him."
"I realize that, but I'm sure it never occurred to him that you would be taking that horse out to the back end of nowhere with you," Carter replied gruffly.
"No. I'm sure Dad probably hoped that I would settle down and take my place in society, so to speak. He could be really old-fashioned about things like that. It doesn't interest me much," she said, then added, "I like living simply."
Carter Mills nodded. "What are you doing with the apartment while you're gone?"
"I decided to just lock it up rather than sublet it or let it go," Stacy answered, a shadow of pain in her eyes. She didn't want to look at him.
"Just as long as you know you're always welcome at our home. And if there's ever anything you need, don't hesitate one minute," Carter Mills said.
"I won't. Carter Jr. is taking me to dinner tomorrow night for one last fling with civilization. He seems to think that I'm going to the dark side of the moon or something." Stacy smiled again, touched by the sincere concern extended by the lawyer. "Thanks for everything, Mr. Mills."
Stacy walked out of his office into the reception area. She understood his misgivings about her proposed trip. Not that she was going to an utterly remote area, but it was true enough that she would be somewhat isolated. When his son had told him about Stacy's decision to rent a hunting cabin in the Apache Mountains of Texas for the spring, the older man had immediately checked into the situation. But he honestly could find no real flaws with her plans, except that she was going alone.
Stacy entered the elevator with an illuminated down arrow above it. Mulling over her plans, she was unaware of the interested looks she received from some of her fellow passengers. The sprinkling of freckles across a too-straight nose usually meant that strangers took her for an average American girl, nothing more. But second glances noticed the gleaming brown hair framing her oval face and the dark brown eyes, more solemn now, with naturally thick lashes that gave her a wholesome beauty all her own.
On the ground floor, Stacy proceeded to the street. It must be lunch hour, she thought absently-lots of pedestrians awaited the commands at the stoplights. Swept along by the flow at the crosswalk, she let herself be led by the steady stream until she reached the parking lot where she had left her car. Preoccupied with her memories as she was, her hand caressed the steering wheel for a second before she accelerated into traffic. The cool little sports car had been the last present her father had given her.
Looking back, Stacy realized she should have recognized the significance of the gift. She'd always assumed that, although she and her father lived very comfortably, their finances were essentially dependent on a freelancer's often erratic income. She hadn't understood all that much about the rights and royalties part of it until Carter Mills's careful explanation. The discovery that her father's death had left her with the means to be independent and live well still seemed like a dream. Stacy didn't know what she would have done if that had not been the case. She possessed a smattering of knowledge about everything, but she had never enrolled in college, preferring to travel with her father, which was an extraordinary education in itself.
Arriving at her apartment building, Stacy pulled into her designated parking spot and got out. The elevator doors were not far away, a convenience her father had insisted on. Even in the digital age, professional camera equipment meant lugging heavy cases. She pressed the button for the fifth floor, then walked silently down the corridor to the apartment that was hers now. She hesitated as she reached her door. Depression spread over her as she inserted the key and opened the door. She was immediately greeted by an ecstatic German shepherd yelping his pleasure at her return.
"Cajun, did you miss me?" Stacy smiled sadly, cradling the enormous head in her hands as she looked at the adoration in the dog's eyes. "What would I do if you weren't here?"
The telephone jingled dimly, stirring Stacy out of her thoughts. Bending a knee on the flowered couch, she picked up the receiver.
"Hey, Stacy. It's Carter," said a masculine voice on the other end. "Dad said I just missed you."
"I left there around noon or maybe closer to one," Stacy said, glancing at her watch as she sat on the couch.
"How's everything going?" A touch of concern warmed his light tone.
"Fine, really. I was just going to finish up the last of my packing, except for the few odds and ends that will have to wait," Stacy said, adding with a little laugh, "I even threw a couple of dresses in with my riding clothes. I'm planning to live it up in some little cow town."
"Just so long as you don't meet some tall, dark, and handsome cowboy, and ride off into the sunset with him," Carter mocked, "I won't mind."
"I wouldn't worry. They don't make cowboys like they used to," Stacy said wryly. "Our last trip west, all I ever saw were sunburned, middle-aged men with families to support."
"Are you still driving down?"
"Yeah. Just Caj and me. Diablo's going by train as far as Pecos. I'll pick him up there and go on to McCloud. The cabin's about thirty miles from town, so I'm really not too far from civilization."
"I'm glad you didn't ask me to go along. All that solitude would drive me up the wall. I don't see how you'll be able to take it for more than a week. How different can one mountain be from another?" Carter teased.
"Maybe you're right, but I have to find that out for myself."
"Can't talk you out of a thing, can I?" the voice in the receiver said. "Listen, I have a brief to work on tonight, so I won't be able to come over. We still have a date for tomorrow evening. Seven sharp, right?"
"Right," Stacy agreed.
"Okay. Take care and I'll see you tomorrow. Bye."
The click of the phone echoed forlornly in the crushing silence that followed. Refusing to give in to the melancholy that suffused the empty room, Stacy rose from the flowered couch to enter her bedroom. She would do every last-minute thing right now, filling the void intensified by the phone call with a bustle of activity.
The next night Stacy was just fastening the clasp on her onyx pedant when the doorbell rang. She surveyed her reflection one last time in the mirror. The sleeveless, peach-colored dress set off her skin and the golden highlights in her hair, pulled up in all its ringleted glory. Taking a tissue, Stacy blotted her lipstick and applied a little gloss for more shine before allowing a satisfied smile to light her face.
When she opened the door to admit Carter, her dark eyes were flashing with pleasure. "I didn't keep you waiting too long, did I?"
The tall, fair-haired man grasped her hands and pushed her away from him to give her a once-over. His blue eyes answered her sparkle with a shine all their own. "I would wait longer just to see you looking this good, Stacy."
His response was a grin. "Guess you know how good you look, huh?"
She shrugged and flung a crocheted stole around her shoulders, adjusting it as he took the liberty of brushing a light kiss on her hair.
"I made reservations for eight at the Meadow Wood country club," he said.
"Okay. Let's go." Stacy smiled up at him.
The two chatted amiably on their way to his car but once inside the conversation pretty much stopped. Carter gave his full attention to the traffic clogging the busy highways that threaded through metropolitan Dallas while Stacy glanced now and then at his profile. He was a good-looking guy with light brown, almost blond, hair and clear blue eyes. Six years older than Stacy and just entering his father's law firm, Carter was considered a serious catch by many of her acquaintances. And it had been said often enough that they looked great together, as if they were meant to be. For what that was worth.
There'd never been any avowals of love or promises to wait between them. When Stacy accompanied her father on his travels, she'd sent Carter funny postcards of wherever she was and called him when she was back in town. Carter dated other girls when she was gone, but never anyone as regularly as Stacy. The two families had seemed pleased with the budding relationship, and she'd suspected that there had been hopes of an eventual marriage.
Stacy sighed, watching Carter competently maneuver the car into a tight parking space. The country club lot was crowded with expensive SUVs and big sedans. Gleaming, all of them. Very different from the battered but indestructible Land Rovers her father drove on assignment, rugged vehicles that were the real deal and not tricked out to impress a valet parker at a posh restaurant.
She glanced again at Carter. Their relationship could never be considered as brother-and-sister, she thought, even if it hadn't reached the heart-pounding passionate stage yet. They were both enjoying the other's company while waiting for love to come their way.
Someday, she supposed, they might marry. They would have a good life. They got along too well for it to be any other way. But not just yet.
Besides, Stacy thought, she was still naïve enough to wish for a love that would sweep her off her feet, even if that only happened in fairy tales.
"Dreamer, are you going to get out of the car or just sit there?" Carter asked, laughing down at her as he stood there holding the car door open.
"Sorry-I was off in another world."
"Well, come back to this one. Tonight is my night and I plan to make the most of it."
He smiled as he escorted her to the entrance, his arm resting lightly around her waist. He opened the elaborately scrolled doors of the private club. Once at the bar, Carter ordered their drinks while Stacy gazed at the retro décor. The designer had gone for an exotic, jungle-type atmosphere with faux leopard and zebra skins adorning the walls.
When the waitress returned with their drinks, Stacy caught Carter looking at her with a somber expression on his face.
"Why so grim? I thought we were celebrating tonight," Stacy chided him.
"Oh, I was thinking about that vacation you're taking, Stacy. Dad isn't too happy about it and neither am I. If anything happened to you out at that godforsaken cabin, it could be weeks before anyone finds out," he said earnestly.
"Please, let's not talk about it tonight. I've made up my mind that I'm going and that's all there is to be said." She replied a little sharply because of her own apprehension. "How come everyone but me knows what's best for me, by the way?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Texas Kiss by JANET DAILEY Copyright © 2009 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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