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Excerpt for THE McCAFFERTYS: SLADE

Harlequin
June 2002, ISBN: 0-373-24480-0

Genre: Contemporary
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Prologue

There he was, sitting in his damned rocking chair as if it was a throne.

Slade McCafferty gnashed his back teeth and felt the taste of crow on his tongue as he glared through the bug-spattered windshield of his truck to the broad front porch of the ranch house he’d called home for the first twenty years of his life.

The old man, John Randall McCafferty, sat ram-rod stiff. In a way Slade respected him for his tenacious hold on life, his stubbornness, his determination to bend all of his children’s wills to meet his own goals. The trouble was it hadn’t worked. The eldest McCafferty son, Thorne, was a hot-shot attorney, a millionaire who ran his own corporation from Denver, and the second-born, Matt, had struck out on his own and bought his own spread near the Idaho border. Randi, the youngest, Slade’s half sister lived in Seattle; wrote her own syndicated column for a newspaper there.

That left Slade.

Ever the black-sheep.

Ever the rogue.

Ever in trouble.

Not that he gave a shit.

As Slade eased out of the truck, a sharp pain shot through his hip and he winced, feeling the skin tighten around the scar that ran down one side of his face, a reminder of deeper marks that cut into his heart, the pain that never really left him. Well, no doubt he’d hear about that, too.

He paused to light a cigarette, then hobbled up the path through the sparse, dry grass that served as a lawn. Though it was barely May, it had been a dry spring, hotter than usual for this time of year and the sun-bleached grass was testament to the unseasonable and arid weather.

John Randall didn’t say a word, didn’t so much as sway in the rocker as he watched his youngest son through narrowed eyes. A breeze, fiery as Satan’s breath, scorched across the slight rise that supported the old ranch house. Two stories of weathered siding with dark green trim around each window, the house had been a refuge once, then a battlefield, and later a prison. At least to Slade’s way of thinking.

He drew hard on his filter tip, felt the warmth of smoke curl through his lungs and faced the man who had sired him. “Dad.” His boots rang as he hitched up the steps and John Randall’s old hunting dog, Harold, lifted his graying head, then thumped his tail on the dusty planks. “Hi, boy.”

More thumps.

“I thought you might not come.”

“You said it was important.” Geez, the old man looked bad. Thin tufts of white hair barely covered his speckled pate and his eyes, once a laser blue had faded. His hands were gnarled and his body frail, the wheelchair parked near the door evidence of his failing health, but there was still a bit of steel in John Randall’s backbone, a measure of McCafferty grit in the set of his jaw.

“It is. Sit.” He pointed toward a bench pushed under a window, but Slade leaned against the rail and faced him. The sun beat against his back. “What’s so all-fired important?”

“I want a grandson.”

“What?” Slade’s chest tightened and he felt the same old pain pound through his brain.

“You heard me. I don’t have much time, Slade, and I’d like to go to my grave knowin’ that you’ve settled down, started a family, kept the family name alive.”

“Maybe I’m not the one you should be talking to about this.” Not now, not when the memories were so fresh.

“I’ve already had my say with Thorne and Matt. It’s your turn.”

“I’m not interested in--”

“I know about Rebecca.” Slade braced himself. “And the baby.”

Slade’s head pounded as if a thousand horses were running through his brain. His scar seemed to pulse. “Yeah, well, it’s something I’ve got to live with,” he said, his eyes drilling into the old man’s. “And it’s hell.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“You can’t go beating yourself up one side and down the other the rest of your life,” his father said with more compassion than Slade thought him capable of. “They’re gone. It was a horrid accident. A painful loss. But life goes on.”

“Does it?” Slade mocked, then wished he could call back the cruel words. He’d said them without thinking that his father was surely dying.

“Yes, it does. You can’t stop living because of a tragedy.” He reached into the pocket of his vest and pulled out his watch, a silver and gold pocket watch engraved with the crest of the Flying M, this very ranch, his pride and joy. “I want you to have this.”

“No, Dad. You keep it.”

The old man’s lips twisted into an ironic grin. “Don’t have any use for it. Not where I’m goin’. But you do. I want you to keep it as a reminder of me.” He pressed the timepiece into Slade’s palm. “Don’t waste your life, son. It’s shorter than you think. Now, it’s time for you to put the past behind you. Settle down. Start a family.”

“I don’t think so.”

A fly buzzed near John Randall’s head and he swatted at it with one gnarled hand. “Do me a favor, Slade. Quit moving long enough to figure out what you want in life. Whether you know it or not, what you need is a good woman. A wife. A mother for your children.”

“You’re a good one to talk,” Slade growled and dropped his cigarette to the floorboards where he crushed out the butt with his boot heel.

“I made my share of mistakes,” his father admitted.

Slade didn’t comment.

“I was young and foolish.”

“Like I am now? Is that what you’re trying to say?”

“No. I’m just hoping you’ll learn from my mistakes.”

“Mistakes. You mean your two marriages? Or your two divorces?”

“Maybe both.”

Slade glanced over his shoulder to the rolling hills of the ranch. Dust plumed behind a sorry old tractor chugging over one rise. “And you think I should get married.”

“I believe in the institution.”

“Even though it stripped you clean?”

John Randall sighed. “It wasn’t so much the money that mattered,” he said with more honesty than Slade expected. “But I betrayed a good woman and let you boys down. I lost the respect of my children and that . . .that was hard to take. Don’t get me wrong, if I had to do it again, I would. Remember if I hadn’t taken up with Penelope, I would never have had my daughter.”

“So it was worth it.”

“Yes,” he said, pushing the rocker so that it began to move a bit. “And I only hope that someday you’ll forgive me, but more than that, Slade, I hope you find yourself a woman that will make you believe in love again.”

Slade pushed himself upright. “Don’t count on it.” He dropped the watch into his father’s lap.

Chapter One

The McCaffertys! Why in the world did it have to be the damned McCafferty brothers?

Jamie Parsons braked hard and yanked on the steering wheel as she reached the drive of her grandmother’s small farm. Her wheezing compact turned too quickly. Tires spun in the snow that covered the two ruts where dry weeds had the audacity to poke through the blanket of white. The cottage, in desperate need of repairs and paint, seemed quaint now, like some fairy tale version of grandma’s house.

It had been, she thought as she grabbed her briefcase and overnight bag, then plowed through three inches of white powder to the back door. She found the extra key over the window ledge where her grandmother, Nita, had always kept it. “ . . . just in case,” Jamie, she’d always explained in her raspy old-lady voice. “We don’t want to be locked out now, do we?”

No, Nana, we sure don’t. Jamie’s throat constricted when she thought of the woman who had taken in a wild, rebellious teenager, opened her house and her heart to a girl whose parents had given up on her. Nana hadn’t batted and eye, just told her that from the time she stepped over the front threshold with her two suitcases, one-eyed teddy bear and an attitude that wouldn’t quit, things were going to change. From that moment forward Jamie was to abide by her rules and that was that.

Not that they’d always gotten along.

Not that Jamie hadn’t done everything imaginable behind the woman’s broad back.

Not that Jamie hadn’t tried every trick in the book to get herself thrown out of the only home she’d ever know.

Nana, a God-fearing woman who could cut her only granddaughter to the quick with just one glance, had never given up. Unlike everyone else in Jamie’s life.

Now, the key turned easily and Jamie walked into the kitchen. It smelled musty, the black and white tile squares covered in dust, the old Formica table with chrome legs still pushed against the far wall that sloped sharply, due to the stairs running up the other side of the house from the foyer. But the salt and pepper shakers, in the shape of kittens, had disappeared from the table, as had all other signs of life. There were light spots in the wall, circular patches of clean paint where one of antique dishes Nana had displayed with pride had been taken down and given to some relative somewhere in accordance with Nita’s will. A dried cactus in a plastic pot had been forgotten and pushed into a corner of the counter where once there had been a toaster. The gingham curtains were now home to spiders whose webs gathered more dust.

If Nana had been alive, she would have had a fit. This kitchen had always gleamed. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” she’d preached while pushing a broom, or polishing a lamp, or scrubbing a sink. And Nana had known about Godliness; she’d read her Bible every evening, never missed a Sunday sermon and taught Sunday school to teenagers.

God, Jamie missed her.

The bulk of Nana’s estate, which consisted of this old house, the twenty acres surrounding it, and a 1940 Chevrolet parked in the old garage, had been left to Jamie. It was Nana’s dream that Jamie settle down here in Grand Hope, live in the little cottage, get married and have half a dozen great-grandchildren for her to spoil. “Sorry,” Jamie said aloud as she dropped her bags on the table and ran a finger through the fine layer of dust that had collected on the chipped Formica top. “I just never got around to it.”

She glanced at the sink where she envisioned her short, round grandmother with her gray permed hair, thick waist and heavy arms. Nita Parsons would have been wearing her favorite tattered apron. In the summertime she would have been putting up peaches and pears or making strawberry jam. This time of year she would have been baking dozens upon dozens of tiny Christmas cookies that she meticulously iced and decorated before giving boxes of the delicacies to friends and relatives. Nana’s old yellow and white spotted cat, Lazarus, would have been doing figure eights and rubbing up against Nita’s swollen ankles and she would have complained now and again about the arthritis that had invaded her fingers and shoulders.

“Oh, Nana,” Jamie whispered glancing out the window to snow-crusted yard. Thorny, leafless brambles scaled the wire fence surrounding the garden plot and the hen house had nearly collapsed. The small barn was still standing, though the roof sagged and the remaining weed-strewn pasture was thankfully hidden beneath the blanket of white.

Nana had loved it here and Jamie intended to clean it up and list it with a local real estate company.

She glanced at her watch and walked outside to the back porch. She couldn’t waste any more time thinking maudlin, nostalgic thoughts. She had too much to do, including meeting with the McCafferty brothers.

Boy, and won’t that be a blast? She carried in her bags and despite the near zero weather, opened every window on the first floor to air out the house. Then she climbed up the steep wooden stairs to her bedroom tucked under the eaves. It was as she’d left it years ago, with the same hand-pieced quilt tossed over the spindle bed. She opened the shades and window and looked past the naked branches of an oak tree to the county road that passed this stretch of farmland. All in all, the area hadn’t changed much. Though the town of Grand Hope had grown, Nana had lived far enough outside the city limits that the fast lane hadn’t quite reached her.

Jamie unpacked. She hung some clothes in the old closet, the rest she stowed in the top two drawers of an antique bureau. She didn’t allow her mind to drift back to the year and a half she’d lived with Nana, the best time of her life and the worst. For the first time in her seventeen years she’d understood the meaning of unconditional love, given her by an elderly woman with sparkling gold eyes, rimless glasses and a wisdom that spanned nearly seven decades. Yet Jamie had also experienced her first love and heartbreak compliments of Slade, the bastard, McCafferty.

And whoopdeedo, she probably was going to meet him again this very afternoon. Life was just chock full of surprises. Sometimes they weren’t for the best.

It took two hours to check in the barn and find that Caesar, Nana’s old gelding was waiting for her. A roan with an ever-graying nose, Caesar was over twenty years old, but his eyes were bright and clear and from the shine on his winter coat, Jamie knew that the neighbors were taking care of him.

“Bet you still get lonely, though, eh, boy?” Jamie asked, seeing to his water and feed and taking in the smell of him and the dusty small barn. He nickered softly and Jamie’s eyes burned with unshed tears. How could she ever sell him? “We had some good times together, you and I, didn’t we? Got into our share of trouble.” She cleared her throat and found a brush to run over his shoulders and back as memories of racing him across the wide expanse of Montana grassland flashed through her eyes. She even rode him to the river where he waded into the deeper water and swam across, all at the urging of Slade McCafferty. Jamie had never forgotten the moment of exhilaration as Caesar had floated with the current. Slade’s blue eyes had danced, he’d showed her a private deer trail where they’d stopped and smoked forbidden cigarettes.

Her heart twisted at the memory. “Yep, you’re quite a trooper,” she told the horse. “I’ll be back. Soon.” Hurrying into the house, determined to leave any memory of Slade behind her she worked for the next two hours getting the ancient old furnace running, turning on the water, adjusting the temperature of the water heater, then stripping her bed only to make it again with sheets that had been packed away in a cedar chest. She smiled sadly as she stretched the soft percale over the mattress. It smelled slightly of lavender-–Nana’s favorite scent.

Again her heart ached. God, she missed her grandmother, the one person in the world she could count on. Rather than tackle any serious cleaning, she set up a make-shift office in the dining room compliments of her laptop computer and a modem; she only had to call the phone company and set up service again, then, she could link to the office in Missoula.

She checked her watch. She had less than an hour before she was to sit down with Thorne, Matt and Slade and the Flying M Ranch was nearly twenty miles away.

“Better get a move on, Parsons,” she told herself though her stomach was already clenched in tight little knots at the thought of coming face to face with Slade again. It was ridiculous, really. How could something that happened so long ago still bother her?

She’d been over Slade McCafferty for years. Years.

Seeing him again would be no problem at all, just another day in a lawyer’s life, the proverbial walk in the park. Right? So why then the tightness in her chest, the acceleration of her heartbeat, the tiny beads of sweat gathering under her scalp on this cold day? For crying out loud, she was acting like an adolescent and that just wouldn’t do. Not at all.

Back up the stairs.

She changed from jeans and her favorite old sweater to a black suit with a silk blouse and knee-high boots, then wound her hair into a knot she pinned to the top of her head and gazed at her reflection in the mirror over the antique dresser. It had been nearly fifteen years since she’d seen Slade McCafferty and in those years she’d blossomed from a fresh-faced, angry eighteen year old with something to prove, to a full-grown adult who’d worked two jobs to get through college and eventually earned a law degree.

The woman in the reflection was confident, steady and determined, but beneath the image, Jamie saw herself as she had been, heavier, angrier, the new-girl in town with a bad attitude and even worse reputation.

A nest of butterflies erupted in her stomach at the thought of dealing with Slade again, but she told herself she was being silly, reliving those melodramatic teenaged years. Which was just plain nuts! Angry with herself, she pulled on black gloves, a matching wool coat, grabbed her briefcase and purse and was down the stairs and out Nana’s back door in nothing flat. She trudged through the snow to her little car, carrying her briefcase as if it was some kind of shield. Lord, she was a basket case. So she had to face Slade McCafferty again?

So what?

#
So far, it had been a bad day.

And it was only going to get worse.

Slade could feel it in his bones.

He leaned a shoulder against the window casing and stared out the dining room window to the vast, snow-covered acres of the Flying M Ranch and the surrounding, forested hills. Cattle moved sluggishly across the wintry landscape, and gray clouds threatened to drop more snow on this section of the valley. The temperature was hovering just below freezing and his hip ached a little, a reminder that he hadn’t quite healed from last year’s skiing accident.

Thorne was seated at the long table where the family gathered for holidays and special occasions. He’d shoved the holly and mistletoe centerpiece to one side and had spread out documents in neat piles. He was still wearing a leg brace from an plane crash that had nearly taken his life and he propped that leg on a nearby chair as he sorted through the papers. Christ, he was such a control freak.

“You’re sure you want to sell?” He asked for the dozenth time.

They’d been over this time and time again. Slade didn’t bother answering.

“Where will you go?”

“Not sure.” He shrugged. Craved a smoke. “I’ll hang around for a while. Long enough to nail the bastard who messed Randi up.”

White lines bracketed Thorne’s mouth. “I can’t wait for the day.” He shoved his chair back. “It won’t come soon enough for me.”

“Me, neither.”

“You heard anything from Striker?” Thorne asked, bringing up the P.I. who Slade had brought into the investigation.

“Nope. Left a message this morning.”

“You sure about him?” Thorne asked.

“I’d trust my life with him.”

“You’re trusting Randi’s.”

“Give it a rest, will ya?” Slade snapped.

Everyone’s nerves were stretched to the breaking point. Slade had known Kurt Striker for years and had brought him in to investigate the attempts on Randi’s life and now, Kelly Dillinger, Matt’s fiancé had joined up with Striker. She’d once been with the Sheriff’s Department; now she was working the private side. “You doubt Kurt Striker’s ability?”

Thorne shook his head. “Nah. Just frustrated. I want this over.”

“You and me both.”

Slade would like to move on. He’d been restless here at the Flying M, never did feel that this old ranch house was home, not since his parents’ divorce some twenty-odd years earlier. But he’d planned to stay in Grand Hope Montana until the sicko who was terrorizing his half-sister and her newborn baby was run to ground and locked away forever. Or put six feet under. He didn’t really care which.

He just needed to find a new life. Whatever the hell it was. Ever since Rebecca . . . no, he wouldn’t go there. Couldn’t. It was still too damned painful.

Now, it’s time for you to put the past behind you. Settle down. Start a family. His father’s advice crept up on him like a ghost.

Boot steps rang in the hallway.

“Sorry I’m late–-” Matt apologized as he strode in. Propped against his shoulder was J.R., Randi’s baby, now nearly two months old. The kid had captured each one of his uncles’ jaded hearts, something the women around this neck of the woods had thought impossible.

Matt adjusted the baby on his shoulder and J.R. made that strange gurgling sound that pulled at the corners of Slade’s mouth. With downy, uneven reddish-blond hair that stuck up at odd angles no matter how often Randi smoothed it, big eyes that took in everything and a button of a nose, J.R. acted as if he owned the place. He flailed tiny fists about and often sucked on not only his thumb, but whatever digit was handy. “I was busy changing this guy.”

Thorne chuckled. “That’s your excuse for being late?”

“It’s my reason.”

Slade swallowed a smile, his mood improving. The little one, he was a reason to stick around here a while.

“Okay, so let’s get down to business,”Thorne suggested. “Aside from the papers about the land sale, I’m going to ask about checking into the baby’s father, seeing what his rights are.” “Randi won’t like it,” Matt predicted.

“Of course she won’t. She doesn’t like much of anything these days.”

Amen, Slade thought, but didn’t blame his sister for being restless and feeling cooped up. He’d experienced the same twinges. It was time to move on . . . as soon as the bastard who was terrorizing her was put away.

Thorne added, “I’m only doing what’s best for her.”

“That’ll make her like it less.” Slade rested a hip on the edge of the table.

“Too bad. When Ms. Parsons arrives, I’m going to bring it up.”

Ms. Jamie Parsons, Attorney At Law.

Slade’s back teeth ground together at the thought of her. He’d never expected to see her again; hadn’t wanted to. Still didn’t. He’d dated her for a while, true, and there had been something about her that had left him wanting more, but he’d dated a lot of women in his lifetime, before and after Ms. Parsons. It wasn’t a big deal.

“Why do I think you’ve been discussing me?” Randi asked as she appeared in the doorway to the dining room. She was limping slightly from the accident that had nearly taken her life, but her spine was stiff as she hobbled into the room and pried the baby easily from Matt’s arms. “You always think we’re talkin’ about you behind your back,” Matt teased.

“Because you always are. Right?” she asked Slade. “Always,” he drawled.

“So when’s the attorney due to arrive?”

Thorne checked his watch. “In about fifteen minutes.”

“Good.” Randi kissed her son’s crown and he cooed softly. Slade felt a pang deep inside, a pain he buried deep. He touched the scar on the side of his face and scowled. He wasn’t envious of Randi–-God, no. But he couldn’t help being reminded of his own loss every time he looked at his nephew.

And his sister had been through so much. Aside from the fact that she still moved with difficulty, wincing once in a while from the pain, there was the problem with her memory. Amnesia, if she could be believed.

Slade wasn’t convinced. Nope. He wasn’t certain his half-sister was being straight with them. Her memory loss smacked of convenience. There were just too many questions Randi didn’t want to answer, questions concerning her son’s paternity. When her jaw had been wired shut and her arm in a cast, communication had been near impossible, but now she was well on the way to being a hundred percent again. Except for her mind. To Slade’s way of thinking, amnesia made everything so much easier. No explanations. Not even about the damned accident that had nearly ended her life.

What the hell had happened on that icy road in Glacier Park? All Slade, his brothers and the police knew was that Randi’s Jeep had swerved off the road and down an embankment. Had she hit ice? Been forced off the road? Kurt Striker, a private investigator Slade had contacted, was looking into the accident and he was convinced another car, a maroon Ford product had forced Randi off the road. The police were checking. Only Randi knew for certain. And she wasn’t talking.

The result of the accident had been premature delivery of the baby, internal injuries, concussion, lacerations, a broken jaw and fractured leg. She’d spent most of her recuperation time in a coma, unable to communicated while the brothers had searched for whoever had tried to harm her and her baby. So far, they’d come up empty. Whoever had tried to kill Randi had taken a second shot at it, slipping into the hospital, posing as part of the staff, and injecting insulin into her IV. She’d survived. Barely. And the son of a bitch was still very much at large.

Slade’s fists clenched at the thought of the bastard. If he ever got his hands on the SOB, he’d beat the living tar out of him.

But Randi wasn’t helping much. She’d emerged from her coma fighting mad and unwilling to help. If only she’d help them, give them some names, let them know who might want to harm her, but, no. Her memory just kept failing her. Or so she claimed.

Bull.

Slade figured she was hiding something, covering up the truth, protecting someone. But why? Who? Herself? Her baby? Little J.R.’s father whoever he was? Or someone else?

“Hell,” he growled under his breath.

Maybe Thorne was right. Maybe they should enlist Jamie Parsons and the firm of Jansen, Monteith and Stone to try and locate the baby’s father and take the legal steps to ensure that J.R.’s daddy wouldn’t show up someday and demand custody. If that was even possible.

Slade just wished the lawyer assigned to their case was someone other than Jamie Parsons. Randi settled into chair directly across the table from Thorne. “Since the attorney’s dropping by anyway, I want to talk about changing the baby’s name legally. J.R. doesn’t cut it with me.”

“Do what you want. We needed something for the birth certificate.” Thorne glanced at his nephew. “But I think J.R. fits him just fine.” “So do I,” Slade agreed. “Since you were in a coma, we agreed on the initials.” “Okay, okay, so it served a purpose and now everyone is calling him J.R., but I’m going to change his name officially to Joshua Ray McCafferty.” She glanced around the room, and if she saw the questions in her brothers’ eyes, ignored them.

J.R.’s paternity was a touchy subject. With everyone. Particularly Randi, who was the only one who could name the guy. But she wasn’t talking. Unmarried, and, to her brothers’ knowledge not seriously involved with anyone, she refused to name the man.

Why?

“He’s mine,” she’d say when asked about the baby. “That’s all that matters.”

But it bothered Slade. A lot. He couldn’t help but think her reticence to name the man and the attempts on her life were related.

“He’s your kid. You can name him whatever you want,” Thorne said agreeably, “but I didn’t warn the attorney that we’d have more issues than the property division.”

“He’ll handle it.” Randi adjusted the drool bib around her son’s tiny neck.

“She,” Thorne clarified. “Chuck Jansen is sending a woman associate. Jamie Parsons. She grew up around here.”

“Jamie?” Randi’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully and Slade envisioned the gears in her mind meshing and spinning and spewing out all kinds of unwanted conclusions. Yep. She glanced his way. “She lived with her grandmother outside of town.” Thorne winced as he adjusted his bad leg on the chair next to him.

“Nita Parsons. Yes, I remember. Mom made me take piano lessons from Mrs. Parsons. Man, she was a task master.”

None of the men commented. They never liked to be reminded that Randi’s mother had been the reason their parents had divorced. John Randall had fallen in love with Penelope Henley, promptly divorced their mother, Larissa, and married the much younger woman. Six months after the nuptials, Randi had come into the world. Slade hadn’t much liked his stepmother or the new baby, but over the years, he’d quit blaming his half-sister for his parents’ doomed union.

Randi looked up at Slade and he felt it coming–-the question that he didn’t want to face. “Weren’t you and Jamie an item years ago?” “Hardly an item. We saw each other a few times. It wasn’t a big deal.” He shoved his hands into the back pockets of his jeans, hoped that was the end of it, but knew his reporter sister better than that.

“More than a few. And, if I remember right, she was pretty gone on you.”

“Is that right?” Matt asked, a smile crawling across his beard-shadowed chin. “Hard to believe any woman would be so foolish.”

“Isn’t it?” Randi said as J.R. tried to grab her earring.

“Funny. I wouldn’t think you’d remembe

r anything.” Randi’s eyes flashed. “Bits and pieces, Slade. I already told you, I just remember a little of this and a little of that. More each day.” But not the father of her child? Or what happened when she was forced off the road? “Then you’d better focus on who wants to see you dead.”

“You were involved with the lady lawyer?” Matt asked.

Slade lifted one shoulder and felt the weight of his brothers’ gazes on him. “It was a long time ago.” He heard the whine of an engine and his muscles tightened. He turned toward the window. Through the frosty panes he caught a glimpse of a tiny blue car chugging its way along the drive. Slade’s gut clenched. The compact slid to a stop, narrowly missing his truck. A couple of seconds later, a tall woman emerged from the car. With a black briefcase swinging from her arm, she hesitated just a second as she looked at the house, then taking in a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and strode up the front path where the snow had been broken and trampled.

Jamie Parsons in the flesh.

Great. Just . . . great.

She was all confidence and femininity in her severe black coat. Strawberry blond hair had been slicked away from a face that boasted high cheekbones, defined chin, and wide forehead. He couldn’t make out the color of her eyes but remembered they were hazel, shifting from green to gold in the sunlight or darkening when she got angry.

For a second he flashed upon a time when the two of them were down by the creek, not far from the swimming hole where Thorne had almost drowned.

It had been a torridly hot summer, the wild flowers had been in bloom, the grass dry and the smell of fresh-cut hay had floated in the air along with the fluff from dandelions. He’d dared her to strip naked and jump in the clear water. And she, with the look of devilment in those incredible eyes, had done just that, exposing high, firm breasts with pink nipples and a thatch of reddish hair above long, tanned legs. He’d caught only a glimpse before she’d dashed into the water, submerged and come up tossing her wet hair from her eyes. He could still hear her laughter, melodious as a warbler’s song. God, where had that come from? It had been eons ago. A lifetime. The bad day just got worse. From somewhere on the front porch Harold gave up a deep “woof,” just as the doorbell chimed.

“You gonna get that?” Matt asked and Slade, frowning, headed along the hallway to the front door. From the kitchen Juanita was rattling pans and singing softly in Spanish, while in the living room a fire crackled and Nicole, Thorne’s wife, was playing a board game with her twin daughters. Giggles and quiet conversation could be heard over the muted melodies of Christmas carols playing from a recently-purchased CD player. At the sound of the front door chimes, two little voices erupted.

“I get it! I get it!”

“No. Me!”

Two sets of small feet scurried through the living room as Molly and Mindy, their dark ringlets flying, scrambled into the entry hall and raced for the door. Small hands vying for the handle, they managed to yank the door open and there on the front porch, looking professional, feminine and surprised as all get-out at her reception, stood Jamie Parsons, Attorney At Law.