Monday, May 6, 2013

In His Brother's Place by Elizabeth Lane

Santa Fe, New Mexico
"You're sure about the boy—and his mother?" Jordan's grip tightened on the phone. "You're the one who has to be sure, Mr. Cooper." The private investigator's voice was as flat as a digitized recording. "The packet's on its way to your ranch by courier—birth certificate, hospital records, the mother's address and several discreet photos. Once you've seen everything, you can draw your own conclusion. If you need follow-up—" "No, there'll be nothing else. I'll transfer your fee as soon as I've seen the documents." Jordan ended the call with a click. The packet would be arriving from Albuquerque within the hour. If his hunch was right, it would hold enough legal and emotional dynamite to blast his wellordered world into chaos. Stepping away from the desk, he stared out the window of his study, which commanded a vista of open ranchland stretching toward the horizon. In the distance, the San-gre de Cristo Mountains, rich with autumn color, glimmered in the November sunlight. This was Cooper land, as it had been for more than a hundred years. When his mother died it would pass to him as the sole surviving heir of the family trust. He was the last Cooper heir—or so he'd thought. But if the report confirmed what he suspected… Jordan turned away from the window, leaving the thought unfinished. It wasn't too late to back off, he reminded himself. When the packet arrived, he could burn the damned thing unopened or shove it through the shredder. But he'd only be destroying paper. Nothing could erase the memory of Angelina Montoya or change the reality of what she'd done to his family. Especially now. Jordan's eyes shifted toward the far wall, bare except for a group of framed family photos. The largest showed two young men grinning over a stringer of freshly caught rainbow trout. Their features were so nearly identical that a visitor would've been hard pressed to tell which was Jordan and which was his twin brother, Justin. When the picture was taken the two had still been close. Three years later, Justin had fallen for dark-eyed Angie Montoya, hostess in an upscale Mexican restaurant off the Plaza. His determination to marry her had torn the family apart. Convinced the woman was a gold digger, Jordan and his parents had taken every action they could think of to separate the couple. The resulting schism between the brothers had never had a chance to heal. Rushing home from a ski trip on the eve of Angie's birthday, Justin had flown his Cirrus SR22 plane into a storm and crashed into a Utah mountain. Grief had dragged Jordan's father into an early grave and made a bitter old woman of his mother. As for Angie Montoya, she had simply vanished—until last week when, after nearly four years, Jordan had come across her name. Searching further, he'd found a picture that had him on the phone within the hour with the best private investigator in the state. He'd wanted answers, and now he was about to get them. The report would almost surely confirm what Jordan had suspected. Angelina Montoya had not only stolen Justin from his family—she had stolen Justin's son. Albuquerque "You've been working hard on that picture, Lucas." Angie swiveled her chair away from the bedroom computer hutch to give her son her full attention. "Why don't you tell me about it?" Lucas held out the drawing—three lopsided stick figures sketched in crayon on a sheet of copy paper. "It's our family. This short one is me. This one with long black hair is you." "And who's this, up here at the top?" Anticipating the answer, Angie felt her throat tighten. "That's Daddy, up in heaven. He's looking out for us, just like you said." "That's right. Do you want to put this picture on the fridge to remind us?" "Okay." Clutching his masterpiece, the boy scampered down the hall toward the tiny kitchen. Angie gulped back a surge of emotion. It wasn't easy, living with daily reminders of Justin. But she'd wanted to make sure Lucas didn't feel fatherless. She kept Justin's framed portrait at the boy's bedside and an album of snapshots on the bookshelf, within his reach. His small fingers had worn the pages thin at the corners. Most of the photos showed Justin and Angie together or Justin alone. There were no pictures of Justin's family. After the way they'd treated her, she wanted nothing to do with any of them—especially Jordan. It was Jordan who'd come on her birthday to bring the news of Justin's death. He hadn't said much, but Jordan's manner had made his feelings clear. Weeks earlier, the family had offered her fifty thousand dollars to walk away from Justin. If she'd taken it, Justin would still be alive. Angie would never forget the bitterness in those contemptuous gray eyes. How could two brothers who looked so much alike be so different? Justin had been warm and loving, quick to laugh and quick to forgive. The thought of Jordan conjured up words like cold, judgmental, mercenary… And manipulative. She'd had firsthand experience with that particular trait of his. The sound of the door buzzer broke into her thoughts. "I'll get it!" Lucas called. "Stop right there, mister. You know better." Striding into the living room, she scooped him up in her arms. Their cramped two-bedroom apartment was affordable, but the neighborhood wasn't the best. When someone came to the door, Angie made it a rule to send Lucas to his room until she knew the situation was safe. Maybe by next year, if her web design business continued to grow, she'd have the money to rent a small house with a fenced yard. Until then. The doorbell buzzed again, twice. Setting Lucas on his play rug, Angie closed the bedroom door and hurried back down the hall. She didn't get many visitors here, and she certainly wasn't expecting company. Any unexpected knock tended to raise her suspicions. Jordan tensed as the light, rapid footsteps approached. Seeing Angie again was bound to be awkward as hell. Maybe he should have sent somebody else first—someone who could assess the situation without putting the woman on her guard. But no, whatever waited on the other side of that door, he was duty-bound to face up to it. He needed to do the right thing—for his family legacy, for his brother's memory…even for Angie, if time had mellowed out her stubborn streak enough to let her see reason. The dead bolt slid back. The latch clicked. Jordan held his breath as the door opened to the width allowed by the security chain. Eyes the hue of rich black coffee stared up at him—eyes framed by lush, feathery lashes. Jordan had almost forgotten how stunning those eyes could be. He watched them widen, then narrow suspiciously. "What do you want, Jordan?" Her husky little voice, taut with strain, pricked his memory. "For starters, I'd like to come in." "Why?" She made no move to unfasten the chain. It seemed her stubborn streak hadn't mellowed in the slightest. "So I won't have to stand out here and talk to you through this blasted door." "I can't imagine we'd have anything worth saying to each other." Jordan's thin-drawn patience snapped. "You have a choice, Angie," he growled. "Let me in so we can talk like civilized people, or I'll shout loud enough to be heard all over the building. Either way, I'm not leaving until you hear what I came to say." He paused, reminding himself that it wouldn't do any good to threaten her. "Who knows," he added, "this might be something you'll want to hear." He braced himself for a stinging retort. Instead, she simply closed the door. Jordan waited in the silence. Seconds crawled past before he heard the rattle of the chain. Slowly the door swung open. He willed himself to look at the apartment first. The living room was bright and clean, the walls freshly painted, the slipcovered sofa decorated with red, blue and yellow cushions. But the place didn't look much bigger than one of Jordan's horse stalls. The building itself was run down with no security system at all—anyone could walk in off the street, as he had done. And he had seen what was outside—the loitering teens, the gang graffiti on the walls. If this was the best Angie could afford, she had to be struggling financially. There was no sign of her son. Only a battered copy of Goodnight Moon on the coffee table betrayed the presence of a child in the apartment. She would've put the boy out of sight, of course. Maybe that was the reason she'd taken so long to undo the chain latch. As he stepped inside, closing the door behind him, Angie moved into Jordan's line of vision. She was dressed in a simple black tee and faded jeans that fit her shapely body without being provocatively tight. Her dark hair fell past her shoulders in silky waves. Her feet were bare, the toenails painted a soft baby pink. She was still seductively beautiful. But Jordan had been aware of that even before his brother fell in love with her—and afterward, too. He braced himself against the replay of that unguarded moment in his car, the taste of her tears, the willing heat of her ripe mouth, the sinuous fit of her curves in his arms. It had been a mistake—one that hadn't been repeated. He'd done his best to block the memory. But forgetting a woman like Angie was easier said than done. He cleared his throat. "Aren't you going to ask me to sit down?" "There's room on the sofa." She was clearly ill at ease. He imagined she would have liked to settle herself in a chair on the other side of the room, but aside from the couch, there was nowhere else to sit other than the floor. After Jordan had taken his seat, she perched on the padded arm at the far e...

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