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Clearview, Texas Three weeks before Christmas
This shit couldn’t be happening. Abby Harper’s heart thumped against her ribs as she turned into the parking lot of the sheriff’s department. She parked and opened her car door, only to have her keys drop from her shaking hands. It took her three tries to pick them up because she couldn’t get her fingers to listen to what her brain was telling them.
Along with the fact that her brother had been arrested, her mind couldn’t stop thinking about the money she was losing for leaving her job early to find out what happened. Which meant that there was a real possibility that she would have to choose between paying for electricity or groceries next week.
She hunkered into her coat, bracing against a blast of cold air as she hurried to the door of the building. As soon as she was inside, the heat engulfed her.
Coming through the speakers overhead was the old Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings song Momma, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.
The irony wasn’t lost on her. The problem was, she’d done everything she could. But Clearview was in cattle country. That meant there were cowboys everywhere—as well as rodeos that happened too frequently to even count.
Abby licked her lips and walked up to the counter and the glass window. A man in a uniform slid back the pane and raised his blond brows in question. His look told her he didn’t care what had brought her there or what sad story she might have.
“Hi,” she said, her voice squeaking. Abby cleared her throat and tried again. “Hi. I’m here about Brice Harper.”
“You don’t look old enough to be his mother,” the man stated as he reached for a file.
After all these years, Abby should’ve been used to such a response. But she didn’t think a person ever got used to such things.
She forced a half smile. “I’m his sister, but also his legal guardian.”
“And your parents?”
If it had been anyone but a sheriff’s deputy, Abby would’ve told them it was none of their business.
“Dad died years ago, and our mother ran off. But not before she gave me legal guardianship of my brothers.”
The man’s dark eyes widened. “You have another brother?”
As if she needed another reminder that she was failing at raising her siblings.
“Through that door,” the deputy said as he pointed to his left.
A loud beep sounded, and Abby dashed to open the door. She walked through it to find another police officer waiting for her. Despite Brice’s reckless nature and the rowdy crowd he hung with, this was her first time at a police station.
And, quite frankly, she prayed it was her last.
Nothing could prepare anyone for what awaited them once they entered. The plain white walls, thick doors, locks, and cameras everywhere made her feel as if the building were closing in on her. And that didn’t even take into account all the deputies watching her as she walked past.
She wasn’t sure if being taken back to see Brice was a good thing or not. Wasn’t there supposed to be something about bail? Not that she could pay it.
Her thoughts came to a halt when the deputy stopped by a door and opened it as he stepped aside. Abby glanced inside the room before she looked at him. He jerked his chin toward the door.
She hesitantly stepped to the entrance. Her gaze landed on a familiar figure, and relief swamped her. “Danny.”
“Hi, Abby,” he said as he rose from his seat at the table in the middle of the room.
His kind, hazel eyes crinkled at the corners with his smile. He walked to her then and guided her to the table. All her apprehension vanished. Not even the fact that he also wore a sheriff’s deputy uniform bothered her. Because she’d known Danny Oldman since they were in grade school.
He’d run with the popular crowd at school because he’d been one of the stars of the football team, but Danny never forgot that he’d grown up in the wrong part of town—next door to her.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said.
His smile slipped a little. “What Brice did is serious, Abby.”
She pulled out the chair, the metal scraping on the floor like a screech, and sat. “No one has told me anything. Brice refused to speak of it. He just told me to come.”
“Perhaps you should be more firm with him.”
The deep voice sent a shiver through her. She hadn’t realized anyone else was in the room. Abby looked over her shoulder to see a tall, lean man push away from the corner and walk toward her.
His black Stetson was pulled low over his face, but she got a glimpse of a clean-shaven jaw, square chin, and wide, thin lips. It wasn’t until he stopped across the table from her and flattened his hands on the surface that she remembered to breathe.
“Abby,” Danny said. “This is Clayton East. Clayton, Abby Harper.”
It was a good thing she was already sitting because Abby was sure her legs wouldn’t have held her. Everyone knew the Easts. Their ranch was the largest in the county. The family was known to be generous and welcoming, but that wasn’t the vibe she got from Clayton at the moment.
Then it hit her. Whatever Brice had done involved the East Ranch. Of all the people for her brother to piss off, it had to be them. There was no way she could compete with their wealth or influence. In other words, her family was screwed ten ways from Sunday.
Clayton lifted his head, pushing his hat back with a finger. She glimpsed strands of blond hair beneath the hat. Her gaze clashed with pale green eyes that impaled her with a steely look. No matter what she did, she couldn’t look away. She’d never seen so much bottled anger or anguish in someone’s stare before.
It stunned her. And she suspected it had nothing to do with her brother or the ranch but something else entirely. She wondered what it could be.
“No,” she said.
What should’ve been internal dialogue came out. Clayton’s blond brows snapped together in confusion. She glanced at Danny, hoping that her outburst would be ignored. It wasn’t as if Clayton needed to know that her history with men was … well, it was best left forgotten.
When she looked back at Clayton, she was arrested by his rugged features. He wasn’t just handsome. He was gorgeous. Skin tanned a deep brown from the sun only highlighted his eyes more. His angular features shouldn’t be appealing, but they were oh, so attractive.
She decided to look away from his face to gather herself but realized that was a mistake when her gaze dropped to the denim shirt that hugged his wide, thick shoulders. The sleeves were rolled up to his forearms, showcasing the edge of a tattoo that she almost asked to see.
Abby leaned back in her chair, which allowed her to get a better glimpse of Clayton East’s lower half. Tan-colored denim hung low on his trim hips and encased his long legs.
He was every inch the cowboy, and yet the vibe he gave off said he wasn’t entirely comfortable in such attire. Which couldn’t be right. He’d been raised on the ranch. If anyone could wear such clothes with authority, it was Clayton East.
Danny cleared his throat loudly. Her gaze darted to him, and she saw his pointed look. Wanting to kick herself, Abby drew in a deep breath. Just as she was about to start talking, Clayton spoke.
“Cattle rustling is a serious offense.”
Abby’s purse dropped from her hand to the floor. She couldn’t have heard right. “Cattle rustling?”
“We picked up Brice trying to load cattle with the East brand on them into a trailer,” Danny said. “Those with him ran off.”
She was going to be sick. Abby glanced around for a garbage can. This couldn’t be happening. Brice was a little reckless, but weren’t most sixteen-year-olds?
Though she knew that for the lie it was. She’d known from the moment their mother walked out on them that it would be a miracle if Brice graduated high school. He acted out, which was his way of dealing with things.
“I … I.…” She shook her head.
What did one say in response to such a statement? Sorry? I don’t know what’s wrong with him?
Danny propped himself on the edge of the table and looked down at her, his hazel eyes filled with concern. “You should’ve come to me if Brice was out of control.”
“He hasn’t been, though,” she argued. And that wasn’t a lie. “Brice’s grades have improved, and he’s really straightened up.”
Danny blew out a long breath. “Is there anyone new he’s been hanging around with?”
“No,” she assured him. “Not that I’ve seen.”
After the last incident when Brice was about to enter a house that his friends had broken into, he’d sworn he wouldn’t get into any more trouble. Abby truly believed that the brush with the law had set him straight.
Her heart sank as she realized that her brother could very well go to jail. She knew she was a poor substitute for their mother, but she’d done the best she could.
“What happens now?” she asked, racking her brain to come up with memories of past shows she’d seen to indicate what would happen next. “Is there a bail hearing or something?”
“That depends on Clayton.”
Just what she needed.
But Abby was willing to do anything for her brothers. She sat up straight and looked Clayton in the eye. “My brother is young and stupid. I’m not making excuses for him, but he’s had a hard time since our mother left. I’m doing everything I can to—”
“You’re raising him?”
She halted at his interruption before nodding. “Both Brice and Caleb.”
He stared at her for a long, silent minute.
Abby wasn’t too proud to beg. And she’d even get on her knees if that was what it took. “Please don’t press charges. I’ll pay back whatever it is you’ve lost with the theft.”
“Abby,” Danny said in a harsh whisper.
“Is that so?” Clayton asked as he crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re really going to repay my family?”
Abby looked between Clayton and Danny before returning her gaze to Clayton and nodding. Her throat clogged because she knew the amount would be enormous, but if it meant her brother wouldn’t go to jail, she’d gladly pay it.
“There were a hundred cows stolen. Thirty of them were recovered when your brother was arrested, which leaves seventy unaccounted for. Let’s round it to $2000 each. That’s $140,000. Not to mention that each of them is about to calf. Each calf will go for a minimum of $500 each. That’s an additional $35,000.”
Oh, God. She would be paying for the rest of her life. And she was fairly certain Clayton wanted the payment now. How in the world was she ever going to come up with that kind of money?
But Clayton East wasn’t finished. He had yet to deliver the killing blow.
“Then there’s Cochise, one of our prized bulls. He’s worth $100,000.”
She put a hand over her mouth as her stomach rebelled. She really was going to be sick, and at the moment, the idea of vomiting on Clayton East sounded tempting.
There was no way she could come up with $275, much less $275,000. Worse, Clayton knew it. It was written all over his face.
Danny rose to his feet and stood at the end of the table. “Abby, you need to get Brice to tell you where the rest of the cattle are.”
The words barely penetrated her mind. She stared at the metal table, her mind blank. Usually, she was able to think up some way to get her brothers out of whatever mess they’d gotten into—and there had been some real doozies.
She’d toiled through various jobs until she landed a position at the CPA company where she was currently employed. Despite the fact that she worked sixty hours a week, they wouldn’t put her on salary because that would mean they’d have to give her health insurance.
Even with those hours and every cent she scraped together, it still didn’t cover their monthly bills. But the one thing she’d promised her brothers was that she would take care of them.
And she had.
Up until today.
She scooped up her purse and stood before facing Danny. “I’d like to see my brother now.”
It took everything within her to walk out of the room without giving the high and mighty Clayton East a piece of her mind.
Copyright © 2017 by Donna Grant