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What doesn't kill a man makes him stronger
Josiah Morgan's parting advice to his teenage sons when they walked out of his life.
The four Morgan brothers shared an unspoken belief, if nothing else: stubbornness equaled strength. A man who didn't have "stubborn" etched into his bones hadn't yet grown into big boots.
Some people used the word jackasses to describe the family of four brothers, but the Morgans preferred to think of themselves as independent loners. It was common for them to be approached by women who wanted to relieve their "loneliness." The Morgans had no problem breaking with their routine for beautiful women bent on their relief.
Fortunately, most people in Union Junction, Texas, understood that a solitary way of life was a good thing, if it was lived by choice. The Morgan brothers were moving to the area not by choice, but for two different reasons. The first was continued solitude, which had been confirmed by some family acquaintances, the Jeffersons. Men after their own heart, the Jeffersons weren't loners, but they hadn't exactly been hanging out in bars every night sobbing about their sad lives before they'd all found the religion of love. They appreciated the need to be left the hell alone.
Yet the need for peace and quiet was just a cover for the real reason Gabriel Morgan had come home. This was about money. He stared at the two-story sprawling farmhouse set amongst native pecan trees and shouldered by farmland. For this house, this land, the Morgans were called to relocate to the Morgan Ranch near Union Junction. The first thing the brothers had all agreed on in years was that none of them was too happy about finding themselves the keeper of a large ranch. Five thousand acres as well as livestockwhat the hell were they supposed to do with it? This was Pop's place. Light-footed Pop and his far-flung dreams, buying houses and land like he was buying up parts of earth to keep him alive and vital.
Pop was the true jackass.
Selling the ranch had been the first thing on Gabriel's mind, and he was pretty certain his brothers had the same idea. But no, Pop was too wily for that. Knowing full well his four sons weren't close, he'd come up with a brilliant plan to stick them all under one roof on acres and acres of loneliness where no one could witness the fireworks.
Pop was in Europe right now, in a new stone castle he'd bought in Pzenas, no doubt laughing his ass off at what he'd wrought. Oh, he couldn't buy just any old French countryside farmhousehe'd bought an eighteen hundred Templar's commandery for a cool four million. It wasn't in the best of shape but just his style, he'd told his sons in the letters they'd each received outlining his wishes. Three floors, ten bedrooms, eight baths, plenty of room should they all ever decide to visit. It even had its own chapel, and he'd be in that chapel praying for them every day.
Gabriel doubted the prayers would help. Pop would be praying for family harmony, and truthfully, some growth in the family tree, some tiny feet to run on the floors of the stone castle, sweet angelic voices to learn how to say Grandpop in French. Grand-père.
Like hell. Family expansion wasn't on Gabriel's mind. He was looking for peace and quiet in this rural town, and he was going to get it. He'd live in the house just as his father had decreed, for the year he'd specified, take his part of the bribe moneymoney was always involved with Popand leave no different than he was today. Except he'd be a million dollars richer.
Gabriel would take the money. As for the unspoken part of the deal
. The pleasure of putting one over on his father, spitting in his eye, so to speak, would be a roundabout kick from one jackass to another. Pop hadn't said his sons had to be close-bonded Templar knights; he'd just stated they had to live in the house for a year. Like a family.
He could do thatif for no other reason than to show the old man he hadn't fazed Gabriel in the least.
He turned to see a woman waving to him from a car window. She parked, got out and handed him a freshly baked cherry pie.
"Welcome to Union Junction, stranger." Her blue eyes gleamed at him; her blond hair swung in a braid. "My name's Mimi Jefferson. I'm from the Double M ranch, once known as Malfunction Junction. I'm Mason's wife. And also the sheriff."
"Hello, Mimi." He'd met Mason months ago through Pop's business dealings, and Mason's wonderful wife had often been mentioned. "Thanks for the pie."
"No problem." She glanced at the farmhouse. "So what do you think of it? Hasn't changed much since you were last here."
Pop had made some additions to the house, rendering it more sprawling than Gabriel thought necessary. He'd added more acreage, too, but that was his dad's agenda. Always the grand visionary. "I haven't been inside."
She smiled. "It needs work."
That he could see from the outside. "I noticed."
"Should keep you real busy."
He nodded. "Seems that was my dad's plan."
She laughed. "Your father fit in real well here in Union Junction. I'm sure you will, too."
He didn't need to, wouldn't be here long enough to put down deep roots.
"By the way, I believe the ladies will be stopping by with some other goodies. We figured your dad left the fridge pretty empty when he went to France."
"You'll see." With a cryptic smile, she got into the truck. "I'll tell Mason you'll be by to see him when you've settled in."
That meant it was time to head into the old hacienda of dread and bar the door. He had no desire to be the target of gray-haired, well-meaning church ladies toting fried chicken. "Thanks again for the pie."
She waved at him and drove off. Gabriel dug into his pocket for the key marked Number Fourhe supposed that was because he was the fourth son or maybe because his father had four keys madeand headed toward the wraparound porch. It groaned under his weight, protesting his presence.
Then he heard a sound, like the growing din of a schoolyard at recess. As a code breaker for the Marines, he was tuned to hear the slightest bit of noise, and could even decipher murmured language. But what assaulted his ears wasn't trying to be secretive in any way. He watched as ten vehicles pulled into the graveled drive. His jaw tensed as approximately twenty women and children hopped out of the cars and trucks, each bearing a sack. Not just a covered dish or salad bowl, but a bag, clearly destined for him.
He was going to go crazyand get fat in the process.
"We're the welcoming committee." A pretty blonde smiled at him as she approached the porch. "Don't be scared."
She'd nailed his emotion.
"I'm Laura Adams," she said. "These ladiesmost of usare from the hair salon, bakery, et cetera, in town. We formed the Union Junction Welcoming Committee some time ago after we received such a warm greeting when we arrived in this town. Many of us weren't raised in Union Junction. Our turn to do a good deed, you might say."
Except he didn't want the deed done to him. She smelled nice, though. Her voice was soft and pleasant and he liked the delicate frosting of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Big blue eyes gazed at him with a warmth he couldn't return at the moment.
The porch shook under his feet with the sound of more approaching women. He hadn't taken his eyes off Laura, for reasons he couldn't quite explain to himself. She opened her pretty pink lips to say more, introduce all her gift-bearing friends, when suddenly something wrapped itself around his thigh.
Glancing down, he saw a tiny towhead comfortably smiling up at him. "Daddy," she said, hugging his leg for all she was worth. "Daddy."
For the first time in his life, including the time he'd temporarily lost part of his hearing from an underwater mine explosion near a sub he'd been monitoring, he felt panic. But the women laughed, and Laura didn't seem embarrassed as she disengaged her daughter from his leg.
"Oh, sweetie, he might be a daddy, or he will be one day. Can you say Mr. Morgan?"
The child smiled at him beatifically, completely convinced that the world was a wonderful, happy place. "Morgan," she said softly.
So he'd be Morgan, just like Pop. He could remember people yelling his father's name, cursing his father's name, cheering his father's name. It was always something along the lines of either "Morgan, you jackass!" or "Morgan, you old dog!"
It didn't feel as bad as he thought it might. Gabriel wondered where the child's father was, and then decided it was none of his business. "I should invite you in," he said reluctantly to the gathering at large, his gaze on Laura. He could tell by their instant smiles that being invited in was exactly what they wanted. "Too hot in June to keep ladies on the porch. We can all see the new place at the same time and make some introductions."
"You haven't been inside your home yet?" Laura asked. "Mimi said she thought you might have arrived later than you planned."
"Tell me something," he said as he worked at the lock on the front door. The lock obviously hadn't been used in a long time and didn't want to move. "I'd heard Union Junction was great for peace and quiet. Is this one of those places where everybody knows everybody's business?"
That made everyone laugh. Not himfor Gabriel it was a serious question.
"Yes," Laura said. "That's one of the best parts of our town. Everyone cares about everybody."
Great. The lock finally gave in to his impatient twisting of key Number Four and he swung the door open. The first thing he realized was how hot the house waslike an oven.
The smell was the next thing to register. Musty, unused, closed-up. The ladies peered around his shoulders to the dark interior.
"Girls, we've got our work cut out for us," an older lady pronounced.
"That won't be necessary," Gabriel said as they brushed past him. Laura smiled at him, swinging her grocery sack to the opposite hip and taking her daughter's hand in hers.
"It's necessary," she said. "They can clean this place so fast it'll make your head spin. Besides, we've seen worse. Not much worse, of course. But your father's been gone a long time. Almost six months." She smiled kindly. "Frankly, we expected you a lot sooner."
"I wasn't in a hurry to get here." Neither were any of his brothers. During their curt e-mail transmissions, exchanged since their father's letter had been delivered to them, Dane had said he might swing by in January if he'd finished with his Texas Ranger duties by then, Pete said he might make it by Februarydepending upon the secret agent assignments he couldn't discussand Jack hadn't answered at all. Jack was the least likely of them all to give a damn about Pop, the ranch, or a million dollars.
His chicken brothers were making excuses, putting off the inevitableexcept for Jack, who really was the wild card.
"Well, we're glad you're here now." She didn't seem to notice his grimness as she set her grocery sack on the counter. "Hope you like chicken, baby peas and rice."
"You don't have to do that." He heard the sound of a vacuum start up somewhere in the house, and windows opening. The fragrance of lemon oil began to waft from one of the rooms. The little girl clung to her mom, her eyes watching Gabriel's every move. "Really, I'm not hungry, and your little girl probably needs to be at home in bed." It was six o'clockwhat time did children go to bed, anyway? He and his brothers had a strict bedtime of nine o'clock when they were kids, which they'd always ignored. Pop never came up the stairs to check on them, and they used a tree branch outside the house to cheat their curfew. Then one year, Pop sawed off the limb, claiming the old live oak was too close to the roof. They devised a rope ladder which they flung out on grappling hooks whenever they had a yen to meet up with girls or camp in the woods.
Or watch Jack practice at the forbidden rodeo in the fields lit only by the moon.
"Oh, Penny's fine. Don't worry about her. You're always happy, aren't you, Penny?"
Penny beamed at Gabriel. "Morgan," she murmured in a small child's breathy recitation. He felt his heart flip over in his chest as he returned the child's gaze. Heartburn. I'm getting heartburn at the age of twenty-six.
"I have a smaller version of Penny who is being watched for me right now." Laura smiled proudly as she unloaded the grocery sacks the ladies had loaded onto the kitchen counter. "Perrin is nine months old, and looks just like his father. You love your baby brother, don't you, Penny?" She looked down at her child, who nodded, though she didn't break her stare from Gabriel.
Gabriel felt his heart sink strangely in his chest. This woman was married, apparently happily so.
He was an idiot, and probably horny. The house was swarming with women and he had to get the preliminary hots for a married mom.
Good thing his yen was in the early stagesone pretty face could replace another easily enough. "Listen, I don't want to be rude, but I just got in. I appreciate you and your friends trying to help, but"
"But you would rather be alone."
"I understand." She flicked the oven on warm and slid the casserole inside. "I would, too, if I was you."
She knew nothing about him. He decided a reply wasn't needed.
"You know, I really liked your father," she said, hesitating. She stared at him with eyes he felt tugging at his desire. "I hated to see Mr. Morgan go."
"Josiah," he murmured.
"I didn't call him by his first name."
He shrugged. "You didn't know him too well, then."
"Because I didn't call him by his name or because I liked him?"
He looked at her, thinking both, lady.
"Mr. Morgan was fond of my children."
His radar went on alert. Here came the your-father-wants-you-to-settle-down chorus. He steeled himself.
She ran a gentle hand through Penny's long fine hair. "Of course, he dreamed of having his own grandchildren."