The Legacy of Copper Creek (7 page)

BOOK: The Legacy of Copper Creek
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She felt a quick sizzle of alarm until Mad called, “Well done, lass. I couldn't have done better myself. Now pass the potatoes.”

W
hit.” Ash helped himself to a sizzling steak from the platter before passing it on. “You haven't heard the latest gossip about Luther.”

In an aside, Whit explained to Cara, “Luther Culkin is the scourge of Copper Creek. If there's trouble, you can be sure Luther's part of it.”

“And probably the ringleader,” Ash added. “Anyway, Luther got liquored up and decided it would be fun to help himself to some of Rita's carrot cake. At three in the morning. So when he gets to her shop and finds the doors locked and the lights out, he just figures why not smash a window and let himself in? After all, in Luther's world, rules are meant to be broken. When the alarm went off, Chief Ira Pettigrew got the call to investigate. He was mad as a hornet when he found Luther drunk and sitting on the floor of Rita's shop, protesting his innocence. Luther claimed somebody else broke in and he was just staying there to protect Rita's baked goods until somebody could come and lock it up.”

Cara asked innocently, “If there weren't any witnesses, how did the police chief know he was lying?”

“I guess the first clue,” Ash said with a wink to the others, “was Luther's hands were covered with carrot cake and gooey frosting.”

“That would do it for me,” Willow said with a laugh.

“But there's more.” Ash was enjoying his story now and laughing between every word. “Ira noticed a bag on the floor beside Luther, who was still too drunk to stand. Inside the bag was another carrot cake. I guess Luther figured he'd save himself the trouble of coming back during regular business hours and buying something for his sweet tooth tomorrow.”

“So how long will Luther be in jail this time?” Whit asked.

“He got out the next day.”

When Whit shot him a look of surprise, Ash rolled his eyes. “Rita refused to press charges. Talk in the town is that she has a history of being attracted to troublemakers. Her last husband lost their ranch to a gambling addiction and had to declare bankruptcy. That's why she opened the shop, hoping her skill as a baker could keep her head above water. I just hope she doesn't lose her head, and her profits, to Luther.”

Mad shook his head. “They say there's someone for everyone.”

Ash merely grinned. “There were some in town who thought that about us.” He leaned close to brush a kiss on Brenna's cheek. “I was the town bad boy for leaving, and Brenna was a fool for taking me back.”

At Cara's arched brow, Brenna leaned over to pat her hand. “Remind me to tell you about it sometime.”

Mad helped himself to a second portion of steak and garlic potatoes, liberally covered with mushroom gravy. “I don't think I told all of you about old Abe Parson over in Red Rock.”

At the mention of the town, Cara's head came up sharply.

“Isn't he the rancher who sold you that bull that broke through a fence and ran clear to the highway?” Ash paused to look over at his grandfather.

“That's him. When the bull ran away again, poor Abe had to buy him back just to save face. Turns out that bull was determined to live out its life on Abe's ranch. Though Abe and I weren't close, we kept in touch.”

“What about him?” Willow looked across the length of the table toward her father-in-law.

“Got himself killed. A single bullet in the back.”

At that, there was a collective gasp around the table. Everyone, without saying a word, was thrust into the moment when they'd first heard about Bear.

Brady asked the question that was on everyone's mind. “Do the state police think there's any connection between Abe's murder and Bear's?”

Mad glanced at his daughter-in-law, seeing her look of shock and pain. “Ira was on it as soon as he got the news, hoping it might be the answer we've been waiting for. He spoke directly with the police chief in Red Rock, who said he'd interviewed Abe's nephew. Apparently the nephew had assumed he'd inherit the ranch. He was furious when he learned that he'd been disinherited.”

Willow sighed, the only signal that she'd had another hope dashed.

Ash gave a slow shake of his head. “This nephew must have been a real thorn in Abe's side to get that kind of treatment. I wonder if he'd been mistreating or neglecting the old man. Has he been arrested?”

“Not yet. The police are calling him a ‘person of interest,' but there were no other relatives, and Abe had no known enemies, so I'd say it's pretty open and shut. It wouldn't be the first time a family feud heated up and the relative flew into a rage and shot one of his own.”

Willow mused aloud, “I wonder how the nephew learned that he'd been disinherited?”

Mad shook his head. “I don't know. Maybe Abe wanted him to know, in order to make the punishment even harsher.”

“That could be.” She set aside her fork. “Who will inherit Abe's ranch now?”

Mad shrugged. “Ira wasn't sure, but he said Abe had recently written his lawyer into his will.”

“I'm glad it won't have to go to auction.” Willow glanced around the table at her family. “There have been too many ranches falling into bankruptcy lately.”

“You can say that again.” Out of habit, Mad slammed his hand down on the arm of the scooter, as he'd always done on his wheelchair, and the scooter lurched backward with a jolt, before Mad managed to bring it under control.

That tiny incident broke the tension and had everyone laughing.

Looking sheepish, Mad shot a look around the table. “Guess I need some practice on this thing.”

Juliet was quick to soothe. “You're doing amazingly well, Mad. You and your wheelchair were together a long time. But now this scooter is allowing you precious freedom.”

“That it is, lassie. That it is.” His smile was back as he turned to the others. “Since Juliet has been working with me, she thinks I'm ready to ride old Scout again. And she even thinks I'll be able to fly, as soon as I have a bit more therapy.”

“Oh, Mad.” Willow rounded the table to give him a hug. “That's wonderful news.” She turned to Juliet. “Now that you're a certified therapist, you've been an angel of mercy to spend so much time helping Mad.”

“And to celebrate…” Myrna was out of her chair and passing around thick slices of chocolate torte layered with a rich cream filling and milk-chocolate frosting.

The older woman paused beside Cara's chair. “A big slice or a smaller one?”

Cara forced herself out of her thoughts and managed a smile. “Nothing, thanks. I think I've eaten more tonight than I have in days.”

“You don't cook, lassie?” Mad paused with his fork halfway to his mouth.

“She's a great cook, Mad.” Whit was quick to defend her. “You know the kind of boxed and canned stuff we stock in the range shacks? She could open a box of this, a can of that, and turn it into a feast fit for a king.”

“You don't say?” Mad winked at Brady, who turned to study Whit and Cara more carefully. “Sounds like your stay up in the highlands wasn't all hard work and dreary nights, lad.”

Whit flushed and happened to catch Brady's look, which changed from surprise to sudden insight.

Brady wasn't the only one who was aware of something deeper here.

Willow, watching her son's body language, surprised the others by saying, “Cara, if you don't need to be anywhere soon, I hope you'll agree to stay on here awhile.”

“Oh, thank you. I'd…love to. But only if I can earn my keep in some way.” She glanced at the two little boys seated between Griff and Juliet. “I'm really great with children. Maybe I could be a nanny?”

Juliet exchanged a loving look with Griff before turning to Cara with a smile. “It's wonderful to know I can count on you in an emergency, Cara. But the truth is, Griff and I love being with the boys all the time. When they're not out in the fields with Griff, they're in the barn with me while I do my therapy classes.”

Cara looked over with interest. “What kind of therapy?”

“I call it horse therapy. It began with a group of veterans learning to use disabled muscles by riding gentle horses. Now it's grown into something much more. Griff and I call our place Hope Ranch, and we've opened it to anyone with a desire to improve their lives by riding, roping, and even learning to drive handicap-ready equipment.”

“Which is why I'm now ready to ride my old horse again,” Mad added. “I've been working with Juliet for over a month, and my life has improved so much, I feel like a young man again.”

“That's wonderful.” Cara turned to Juliet. “You must be so proud of your work.”

Griff reached over to squeeze his wife's hand.

Juliet beamed. “I'm proud of all of us. We've come so far.”

Myrna, who'd been enjoying her torte in silence, suddenly asked Cara, “How would you feel about helping me here, especially in the kitchen?”

Everyone turned to look at her.

Mad raised a brow. “Are you thinking of kicking me out of my own kitchen?”

Myrna smiled. “I'm thinking, since you're going to be riding Scout and taking the plane up soon, you won't have time to be a full-time cook anymore. And with all my household chores, I'd welcome some help, especially in the kitchen.” She added slyly, “Especially since Whit boasted that she's some kind of magician with food.”

Mad clapped his hands. “Say yes, lassie. I'm more than ready to turn over my apron. And heaven knows Myrna will be lost without someone to take my place.”

“Praise heaven for small favors,” Myrna deadpanned before turning to Cara. “Though I hate to ever admit when Maddock MacKenzie is right, this time I'll give him his due. I'll be lost without some help, Cara. It would mean a lot to me.”

Everyone turned to Cara, whose smile was answer enough.

“Thank you for that vote of confidence. I hope I won't disappoint all of you.”

Willow stood and hurried around the table to embrace the young woman. “Cara, don't you worry about disappointing us. Having you here will make such a difference.” She then turned to her father-in-law and bent down to kiss his cheek. “I'm just delighted that you're reclaiming your life.”

“Aye, lassie.” His voice was rough, and he was forced to swallow before saying, “I never thought I'd see this day. But thanks to Juliet's bullying, I'm learning that anything is possible, as long as we have the will to work for it.”

Myrna walked up beside Cara and placed a generous slice of torte in front of her.

Cara blinked. “I thought—”

Myrna interrupted. “Now it's a true celebration. I hope your appetite has perked up some. Welcome to the family.”

With a laugh of delight, Cara dug into her dessert.

  

Cara and Whit climbed the stairs together. When she stopped at the door of her suite of rooms, he surprised her by asking, “Mind if I step in?”

Seeing the wary look that stole over her, he held up a hand. “Just for a minute.”

“Okay.” She opened the door and he stepped inside behind her before closing it and leaning against it.

“Is it just a coincidence that your wild story, which you claimed you'd dreamed up overnight, was set in Red Rock?”

She looked away.

He touched her hand, then, feeling the familiar sexual tingle, just as quickly withdrew it. “I'm not trying to scare you or intimidate you, Cara. And I'm certainly not accusing you of lying. It's just…” He took a breath. “It's just that your story was so improbable, I immediately dismissed it as your clever way of holding off any more questions.” He paused, watching her reaction. “Then, when I learned about your treatment at the hands of Jared Billingham, I thought I understood why you were running scared.”

He saw the shudder that passed through her at the mention of her wealthy tormentor and hated himself for having to bring it up again. As gently as possible, he said, “Just tell me. Was your story about the encounter in Red Rock fact or fiction?”

Her voice was little more than a whisper. “Fact.”

“All of it?”

She looked at him then. Stared fully into his eyes, and her own were filled with such misery, he could feel his heart aching for her.

“I think so. At the time I was so scared, all I could do was run. Now, when I look back at it, I wonder how much of it was real and how much of it was”—she shrugged—“my crazy imagination.”

He hadn't meant to, but seeing her like this brought out his need to soothe. To protect.

He gathered her into his arms and pressed his lips to her temple. Against a tangle of hair he whispered, “I'll talk to Ira. Tell him what you saw, or think you saw. Maybe that will be the end of it. Or maybe he'll want to talk to you.”

He felt her pull back. In her wide eyes, the fear was back.

“Don't worry, Cara. I don't want you to worry about a thing.”

“But I do. I will. What if he thinks it's the ravings of a silly female? What if—”

Whit lowered his head and kissed her. It began as an attempt to reassure her. A simple touch of mouth to mouth. But the moment they came together, everything changed.

His big hands dragged her closer. So close he could feel every quivering breath she took.

He took the kiss deeper, hungry for more, until it became a desperation that had him digging his fingers into her hair, while his eager, avid mouth roamed her face, kissing her cheek, her ear, the curve of her brow. As he brushed his lips over her eye, he felt the moisture of tears.

He lifted his head. “I'm sorry, Cara. I'm so rough. I didn't mean…”

His tenderness was her undoing, and the tears streamed down her cheeks.

Burying her face in her hands, she turned away from him. “Now look what you've done. I never cry. And I've cried more tears since meeting you than I've cried in my lifetime.”

BOOK: The Legacy of Copper Creek
2.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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