BLACK HILLS LEGACY
Release date: 4/18/2017
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Nothing like an unconscious doppelgänger to ruin a perfectly good day at the Mystery Spot.
Robyn Craine has two loves: her Harley and the Mystery Spot, the Black Hills tourist attraction she bought with funds from her late mother’s estate, an inheritance that included a generous gift from billionaire Harold Hopewell. With a chance-of-a-lifetime expansion in the works, Robyn doesn’t have time to babysit the handsome Sentinel Passtime actor who shows up to do “research”–especially when she figures out his connection to the wealthy businessman/politician trying to sabotage her new project.
Liam Temple has no intention of falling for a Black Hills local. His agent has Liam’s breakout, big budget movie deal lined up. Even though Liam likes his current Sentinel Passtime gig, he promised his late sister he’d win a Golden Globe by thirty-five. The last thing he needs is the distraction of a feisty, Harley-riding tourist trap owner caught in Liam’s father’s crosshairs for buying a hunk of land Richard Marston thinks belongs to him. But when Robyn’s stunt double is attacked, Liam recognizes his father’s MO and Liam makes keeping Robyn safe his first priority.
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BLACK HILLS LEGACY: THE INHERITANCE © LONER LLAMA PRESS (2017)
“Hey, Indian Guide. Are you passed out again? Jesus, shouldn’t you people have developed some kind of tolerance by now?”
Joe heard the question. He chose not to answer. Brad and Craig, the two men who’d hired him to show them all the locations that were used during the shooting of Dances With Wolves were the ones with a drinking problem. Not Joe LaRoche. He’d cleaned up his act the minute he got hired as an extra on the movie. He’d done a good job. Always on his mark. The lady who hired him said she’d keep his name and photo in her file so she could call him the next time they had a part for a Native American his age and build.
A hand grabbed his shoulder and shook him. Hard. “Hey, the man who is paying you is talking to you, LaRoo. Wake up.”
The new guy. The one his friends called: Dick. After five minutes in the man’s company, Joe had decided the nickname was also a fitting description of the asshole’s personality.
Joe labeled him Money Man because he showed up behind the wheel of a giant, Jeep-like four-wheel-drive with aggressive black bumpers and huge, off-road tires. It reminded Joe of the squatty armored vehicles American soldiers were driving in Iraq. “A Hummer H-1,” Dick had boasted. “One of the first of its kind, stateside.”
The man had a banker’s build and he smelled of money and power. The fact that he was significantly smaller in stature than his loudmouth pals didn’t stop him from throwing his weight around. Two things quickly became clear: Dick the Money Man was footing the bill for this weekend’s debauchery, and he was dangerous. Joe hadn’t reached the ripe old age of twenty-eight without learning a thing or two about survival.
He’d set up two high-end tents on a piece of property the men claimed to own, not far from the silly tourist trap Joe had driven past but never visited. The place wasn’t open yet for the season. In fact, Joe had been ordered to cut the lock on the winter gate at the foot of the hill so they could reach their property. He didn’t know what the owner of the Mystery Spot would think when he showed up to inspect his place for any winter damage.
Probably another couple of weeks before that happened, Joe guessed. Memorial Day was the start of summer for a lot of Black Hills businesses that banked on earning their keep during the short window between late May and Labor Day.
From the bits and pieces Joe had gleaned from the men’s conversation, the three partners bought this land sight unseen. Like a lot of out-of-state investors, these Californians hoped to cash in on the free advertising the movie brought to the state. Joe couldn’t see what was so great about the sixty acres he’d been hired to help them explore. Hell, most of it was vertical, better fit for mountain goats than humans. But that wasn’t his problem. Staying clean and sober while earning enough money to buy a truck was his only concern. A truck I can drive to Hollywood.
“Indian Guide, my friend asked you a question. Please do us the courtesy of replying.”
Joe, who’d stretched out on his bedroll with his back to the fire, rolled over and opened his eyes. Two men stood above him, backlit by the campfire like a pair of giant vultures. A shiver passed down his spine. Were his ancestors warning him? Or had the chill of the late spring night worked its way through the insulated mat one of the men had tossed his way.
“Can you repeat the question?”
Money Man groaned and shook his head, muttering cuss words that started to run together in a drunken slur. He dropped to a squat a foot or so away. Joe couldn’t make out his features clearly because his back was to the fire, but instinct told him something had changed. A switch had flipped. The man wasn’t angry. He was…evil.
Joe edged backwards, slipping off the mat. Pebbles and hunks of rock dug into his hip but he barely felt them. “Wh…what? What’d I do?”
“You failed to give us the full service Black Hills experience. We planned on shooting a deer. Where’s our deer, Joe?”
“I thought you were kidding. This isn’t hunting season. You can get in a lot of trouble for poaching.”
“Not if the deer comes on my property. We promised our friends back home fresh venison. What are you going to do about that?”
Joe’s heart rate shot up a notch. These men were going to get him in trouble and then split, leaving Joe to hold the bag. Well, screw that. I’m nobody’s fall guy.
He got to his knees and grabbed the old leather satchel his uncle had made for him as a boy. He always carried a change of clothes since he didn’t have a permanent address and never knew when he might happen across a shower. “Nobody said nothing about killing a deer.”
He grabbed his personal belongings blindly and stuffed everything into the bag: cigarettes, disposable lighter, Dances With Wolves ball cap and wallet—still empty because they hadn’t paid him, yet.
“I beg to differ with you. Why else would we bring a drunk Indian on our camping trip? Just so you could set up our tents like a Sherpa? We’re not helpless, Indian Guide. We came here to hunt, and that’s what we’re going to do.” Money Man’s tone reminded Joe of his father who used to beat the shit out of Joe for no other reason than Joe looked at him wrong.
Joe dropped his gaze and began rolling up his sleeping bag. “I’m leaving.”
An icy chill ran down Joe’s spine. “What’s that mean?”
Money Man looked at his friends, who had watched the exchange without saying a word. “Let’s give him a two-minute head start.”
Joe waited. Hoping either Brad or Craig would step up and put an end to this craziness.
“The quarter moon should be in his favor. Plus, he knows the area. We don’t.”
The other men whispered in a huddle, apparently weighing the pros and cons of the alternative sport Money Man was suggesting: hunting a human being.
Money Man dug a card from his pocket. “Here, Indian Guide. If you can get away before we shoot you, call this number. I’ll double what these jokers promised to pay you.” He waved the glossy little business card back and forth. “Of course, you could call the police and tell them we were threatening to kill you, but I’m sure you know who they’ll believe.”
Joe took the card because he didn’t intend to die tonight. He’d been running his whole life from bullies who thought a Lakota life was worth less than a white one. He pushed the card into the hide medicine bag around his neck then slipped the rope tie of his satchel over his head diagonally so the bag rested at the small of his back. He was as fit as he’d ever been. And Money Man was right about one thing: Joe knew the Hills, even if he’d never been on this particular hunk of land before.
He’d head for that stupid tourist trap. It wasn’t open for the season yet, but there had to be some spot where he could hide until daybreak.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because I can.”
Privilege. Some things never changed.
A log shifted in the fire setting off a sudden burst of golden light. He got a good look at Money Man’s face and memorized it. The cops might not believe Joe and they sure as hell wouldn’t press charges against three rich white guys, but Joe never forgot a face. And if he didn’t make it out alive, his soul would track down the Money Man and make him pay. Someday.
Jenna Murphy’s text arrived just before seven: “Need a favor. Time sensitive. Someone to meet.”
Robyn Craine, who’d been at work for over an hour getting things ready for her first day off since the Mystery Spot’s Under-New-Management Grand Opening three weeks earlier, heard the sub-text in her former boss’s message: “I have another actor to introduce you to, my poor, pathetic, single friend. I meant it when I told you I’m not leaving Sentinel Pass until you get laid.”
Robyn stood in the center of the labyrinth she’d painstakingly painted on the concrete slab she’d had installed the moment the ground was deemed frost-free. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath of pine-scented air and held it, waiting for the peace she craved to wash over her like a benediction.
As usual, her busy, fretful, squirrel brain picked up the sound of the wind chattering in the surrounding mixed grove of oak, pine, and larch. Nearby, crows gossiped. A bevy of small summer birds twittered with joy over treasures discovered in the newly mown strip of grass to her left.
In the far distance, she heard the roar of her tribe calling. Harleys. Old and new. Muffled, but loud enough to make her palms twitch with the need to curl around the grips awaiting her.
Center. Inner peace. You can do this.
The memory of her first labyrinth experience crashed into her consciousness. Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Mom had read the instructions aloud—the very same liturgy Robyn had copied and posted near the entrance of this replica—in her calm, nurse’s voice. When Robyn gave up less than halfway to the center, Marybeth Craine had praised her daughter for trying and said, “What twelve-year-old doesn’t think peace and enlightenment is but a few steps away? Don’t worry, honey, you’ll find your inner Zen someday.”
Unfortunately, patience hadn’t been Robyn’s strong point fifteen years ago. And still wasn’t. She opened her eyes and tilted her chin to stare into the cloudless, blue sky. A picture-perfect summer day in the Black Hills. I’m supposed to be on the road to Devil’s Tower right now.
But Robyn owed Jenna—and her mom, Bess. The two had bent over backwards to facilitate Robyn’s purchase of the Mystery Spot. Even with the money from her late mother’s estate, Robyn had had to jump through a maze of tedious licensing, regulations and structural improvement hoops to take over ownership of the business Jenna’s father had built, pretty-much without plans or permits some thirty years earlier.
Robyn’s inheritance, which had included a shockingly generous gift from a billionaire by the name of Harold Hopewell, had come as a complete surprise. Marybeth, for reasons Mom never shared, had kept the bequeathal a secret from everyone. During the reading of Mom’s will, Robyn learned that Mr. Hopewell felt Nurse Marybeth Craine had shown him “great kindness and unsurpassed compassion” when she’d cared for him after an accident that left him alone and hospitalized in Spearfish.
Robyn didn’t doubt Mr. Hopewell’s memory of the incident. Marybeth Craine had been a nurse with a heart of gold the size of Fort Knox.
“Hey, wow,” a voice called from the front gate, which Robyn had left ajar. “Look at this. I read about the maze on social media, but the photos don’t do it justice. I’m impressed.”
Robyn raised her hand to shield her eyes. A redhead in white capris and a vivid turquoise, off the shoulder, cotton camp shirt stood just outside the circle. “It’s not a maze, Jenna. Those have dead ends. A labyrinth has one beginning and one end. No tricks.”
“How do I get to where you are?”
Robyn pretended to check her watch. “How much time do you have?” She pointed to the well-marked entrance a few feet to Jenna’s right. “There’s the spiritual way or…” She made a back and forth motion between them. “…there’s the: it’s-a-giant-sidewalk-what-are-you-waiting-for way?”
Jenna tossed back her head and laughed. “You remind me so much of my dad. I just know he’s up in heaven standing beside your mother saying, ‘Look at your girl, Marybeth. She’s doing The Spot proud, isn’t she?’”
A tiny shiver passed down Robyn’s spine despite the balmy temperature and kiss of bright sunlight. “Has anyone ever told you that you have a great imagination? Mom never understood what I saw in this place. To her, the Black Hills was where she worked to earn enough money to travel around the world looking for the one place she planned to retire in.”
Robyn half-choked on the word retire. Life was so unfair. C-Diff—a nasty infection Marybeth never saw coming robbed Mom of her golden years.
“Well, Dad shared your passion. He would have worked here year-round if he could have broken even, and I think your idea to expand is going to be a great success.”
“Fingers crossed.” Robyn gambled a big chunk of her inheritance on the sixty-acre parcel next door to the Mystery Spot with dreams of creating a year-round venue. Seasonal businesses may have worked in the past, but being open to winter sports enthusiasts was the only way to get ahead in this market.
“You’ll get there. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I called.” Jenna gave her a one-arm hug. “Is there somewhere we can talk? You know redheads and sun. Not a good combination. I can feel the freckles gathering for an attack.”
“Sure. My office. Let’s go. I don’t think you’ve seen it since we finished remodeling.”
They cut across the center plaza, which would be filled with tourists in another hour. “The place looks fabulous, Robyn. Dad would be so pleased with all the improvements you’ve made. And your online presence is spot on. I wish a few more of the Sentinel Pass businesses would take a page out of your playbook.”
Robyn lifted the set of keys hanging from the purple lanyard around her neck. “Thanks, but it wouldn’t have been possible without your patience. Who knew closing an estate would be so complicated and take so long? Especially since Mom left a will and I was her only beneficiary.”
Between dealing with the shock of Marybeth’s death and learning Mom had been sitting on a small fortune for over a year, Robyn had struggled to keep it together. Even getting out of bed had been a challenge some days. But the Mystery Spot had been her summer job since Robyn was sixteen, and she’d secretly dreamed of buying it someday. In a way, The Spot, as most locals affectionately called it, was home.
“Everybody wonders why your mother didn’t retire and travel to all those places on her bucket list when she got the Hopewell inheritance. Why do you think she never touched a dime of it—or even told you about it? Doesn’t that seem out-of-character for someone as open and gregarious as Marybeth?”
“Not really.” The Marybeth Craine people saw—fun loving, world traveler, serial dater—was far different from the woman Robyn lived with her whole life. “Mom loved her secrets.”
Jenna shrugged. “Maybe she was still digesting the fact she was wealthy. Believe me, going from pinching pennies to the lifestyle of the rich and famous does involve a learning curve.” She gave a little laugh and put the back of her hand to her forehead in a “poor me” gesture. “But it’s worth it. No pun intended.”
Robyn smiled. “Maybe.”
She climbed the wide concrete steps to the covered landing and unlocked the door. An old-fashioned brass mail flap had been built into the wall to the right of door for visitors to leave comment cards. Their email addresses were added to the Mystery Spot mailing list and, every week throughout the year, Robyn would draw a name for free passes and other prizes.
She held open the door for Jenna. “Remember what this place used to look like? Didn’t you tell me it was a converted storage shed originally?”
Knox had finished the interior just hours before the Grand Opening. The cost was worth every penny just to see Jenna’s wide-eyed look of amazement.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s absolutely gorgeous.” She stepped into the foyer and spun around. “Dad? Are you seeing this? Now, this is what I call an office.”
Robyn closed the door behind them and led the way to her inner sanctum. “Believe it or not, Knox O’Toole worked from a sketch I found in your dad’s journal. I think Clarence intended to make this building resemble a missile silo. Knox had to tweak the design a bit to keep it affordable, but I love how it turned out.”
“Knox? The guy your Mom was dating when she got sick?”
The guy Mom should have met twenty years ago. “Yeah. He really loved her. And he’s been a good friend to me.” She ran her hand down the corrugated metal siding they’d used as a wall covering. “He’s a bit of a picker, too. He got his hands on an old grain silo, and I helped him tear it down.”
Jenna reached in her purse for her phone. “Turning it vertical was a brilliant idea, Robyn. The rusted spots are so earthy and natural. I have to send Mom a picture.”
“Wait. You’ve got to see this.” She drew Jenna into the open central core and pointed to the skylight Knox designed and fabricated. “It was Knox’s idea to replicate the obelisk from the main entrance. Of all the places Mom and I traveled, Mom’s favorite was Paris. I couldn’t build her an Eiffel Tower, but doesn’t this skylight make you think of The Louvre?”
Jenna wiped a tear from her cheek. “My dad would be dizzy with joy.”
Robyn’s breath caught in the back of her throat. “I’m glad you think so. You know how much Clarence meant to me. I’m always trying to find ways to honor his creative genius.”
She walked to her desk. “Have a seat. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Nothing, thanks. I’m meeting Shane and some of the crew for lunch. Since I had some free time, I thought I’d run up to see all these changes I’ve been hearing about.”
Uh-huh. Nothing was ever that simple where Jenna was concerned.
“Is your mom in town? I haven’t seen Bess since Mom’s funeral.”
Jenna and her mother had taken over running the Mystery Spot after Clarence Murphy’s sudden death at age sixty-four. Neither had any true love or aptitude for running the place, but they’d held on to it out of a sense of legacy…until Hollywood came to Sentinel Pass. Now, Jenna was a scriptwriter and married to Sentinel Passtime producer/director Shane Reynard, and Bess Murphy was a regular cast member of the hit TV series.
“Nope. Mom’s character on the show almost never leaves the set, and, although Mom denies it, she’s quite infatuated with Cooper Lindstrom’s neighbor—an octogenarian with a passion for younger women. Mom’s just twenty years his junior, but she’s been known to act like a teenager.”
Robyn grabbed a bottle of water from the small fridge and walked to the ergonomic chair behind her desk. “I’m glad Bess is happy.”
Jenna dropped her giant, orange, leather bag on the floor by one of the two visitor chairs and sat, leaning back with a long sigh. “Me, too. The world’s biggest hypochondriac hasn’t been sick a day since she left Sentinel Pass. Mom tells everyone she’s too busy to worry about her health any more.”
Neither spoke for a minute then Jenna perked up. “Do you remember when Dad overheard you call our old office a super-sized closet?”
“Do I ever. He gave me a PowerPoint lecture on the importance of budgets. Clarence didn’t believe in wasting money on ‘superfluous’ things.”
“Like elbow room and good lighting.”
Robyn laughed. “Exactly. But I think he’d appreciate the fact that Knox brought this job in under budget and on time.” Barely. She held up her hands, palms out. “And I worked right beside him the whole time. My blisters are just beginning to fade.”
Jenna held up her phone. “Photos won’t do it justice. Let me take a video for Mom. She won’t believe it’s the same place.”
Robyn waited until Jenna finished, then said, “So, tell me what was so important I had to postpone the start of my only day off.”
Jenna’s eyes went wide. “Really? I’m so sorry. If I’d known I would have told Liam to postpone…but it’s his first day off, too, in I don’t know how long and he said he really needed to talk to you…”
Robyn crossed her arms and gave Jenna her best “fess up” stare—the one Clarence used to keep his young, light-fingered staff in line. “What’s going on?”
Jenna scooted forward on her chair. “Not what. Who.” Her pretty pink lips pulled to one side pensively. “Or is it whom? Damn. I’m an Emmy-award-winning scriptwriter. You’d think I’d know the difference.”
Robyn tamped down her impatience. Her two summers of working for Jenna as manager of the Mystery Spot had taught her that specificity was the only way to keep Jenna on task. “What does who-or-whom need from me? Free passes? You’ve got ’em.” She opened the side drawer and pulled out a banded stack of tickets.
“Not that simple. Sorry. He wants to meet you. He was a little vague as to why it had to be today.”
“He who?” Robyn paused for effect. “Or is it whom?”
Jenna laughed. “Liam Temple. The actor who plays Deputy Mason Grant.”
Robyn put a hand to her open mouth faking shock. “The handsome cop with two first names? Wasn’t there a big debate on social media about whether or not his names made him an expendable character? Or am I getting that confused with a red shirt.” Jenna’s amused eye-roll told Robyn she got the Star Trek reference. “Are you writing him out of the script? Do you want him to die a spectacular death here at the Mystery Spot? I’m sure we could up with something really creative and memorable.”
Jenna laughed. “And Shane says I have a vivid imagination. First of all, don’t believe everything you read on Facebook. Secondly, Mason and Grant can also be last names.” She gave Robyn a smug, “So, there” look. “And for the record, Liam’s contract is rock solid and we have no plans to kill off Deputy Grant. In fact, our ratings have shot up nicely since he came onboard.”
Robyn pictured the handsome cop she—and most of the female viewing public—had developed a bit of a crush on. Tall, broad shoulders, sandy blond hair that had more of a rumpled, bedhead look than was probably allowed for real cops. The guy’s killer smile got her every time. “He does look good in body armor.”
“You can tell him that when he gets here.”
Robyn lowered her head to the desk and tapped her forehead against her spotless desk blotter a couple of times. “Ambushed in my own place of business. Not cool, Jenna Mae.”
“Sorry. Like I said, it’s his only day off, too. We’d planned to drive up together, but he wanted to ride his bike.” She shook her head in obvious bewilderment. Mom had given Robyn a similar look when Robyn rode home from college on her Harley—a graduation gift to herself. “You people and your Hogs. You have no idea how happy Kat was when Jack sold his bike to Liam.”
As the newest member of the Wine, Women and Words Book Club, Robyn knew the founding members Kat Petroski, Libby McGannon, and Char Jones almost as well as she knew Jenna. She enjoyed the group’s meeting on the off-season, but during the summer, she barely had time to eat, let alone read or keep up with her friends.
She and Jenna chatted about Kat’s newly announced pregnancy as well as other Sentinel Pass gossip until a rap sounded on the outer door.
Jenna slapped on hand over her mouth, her cheeks bright pink. “Sorry. So not my office.”
Robyn stood and started toward the door when it opened. A man walked in. Over six-foot. He had a few years on Robyn, but not enough to worry about. He moved like a dancer—or an actor who memorized his stage directions down to the T. His jeans were so distressed they clung to every sinful inch of his buff thighs for dear life. His slightly ratty gray T-shirt said, Forecast: sunny with a chance of beers.
Her heart did a silly little hop, skip and leap that compressed the air in her lungs making it nearly impossible to catch her breath. When he stuck out his hand to shake, damned if she didn’t grab on like a drowning victim…or worse, a rabid fan.
* * *
“Hi. You must be Robyn,” Liam said, trying to overlook the fact the woman’s grip was nearly as strong as his. “Is that your bike I just parked beside? Damn fine piece of machinery. Custom?”
She dropped her hold on his hand the instant a gorgeous cherry-hued blush claimed her smooth, perfectly sculpted cheeks. Robyn Craine was a looker. Not conventionally pretty or starlet beautiful, but she had his full attention. “How come we haven’t met? Sentinel Pass isn’t that big and most of the locals seem to turn out for one cast party or another.”
“Robyn’s been busy,” Jenna said, motioning for them to return to the desk. “She bought this place after taking care of her mom who passed away…what? Six months ago?” She looked at Robyn for confirmation.
“Eight.” The word came out hoarse. She grabbed the bottle of water sitting on her desk and cracked open the top to take a drink.
“Right. Hard to believe.”
“Sorry for your loss.” Small, common words. But he meant them. “I lost my younger sister ten years ago. Sometimes, it feels like yesterday.” He couldn’t tell if she believed him or not. Robyn Craine was not an easy read.
Oddly on edge, he veered past the chair Jenna had pulled out for him and strolled to the set of double windows to the right of the desk. Side-by-side, each was open to allow the still comfortable morning breeze into the room. The view included the sides of two smaller buildings and a bank of trees poking out from beyond a weathered fence. The kind he’d seen in drawings of old Western forts.
He looked over his shoulder at the two women watching him. “I’ve been meaning to get up here to check out the place. We shot a scene in the parking lot before you opened, but this is my first time inside. I’d love to look around, but it’s obvious we caught you ready to hit the road.”
Her black leather vest with a motorcycle club logo above the sweet curve of her left breast would have been a giant clue even without the lace-up boots, white tank and a familiar-looking purple and yellow bandana tied at her neck. The Mystery Spot colors, he realized, seeing examples all around him. Robyn Craine knows a thing or two about branding.
Robyn folded her hands primly on the pristine desktop. “It’s perfect riding weather. But here we are, so tell me what this meeting is about.”
Jenna looked at Liam. By the set of her jaw, he knew to let her take the lead. Technically, Shane was his boss, not Jenna, but he’d learned to listen to Sentinel Passtime’s head scriptwriter with as keen an ear as he gave the director.
“We’ve been discussing a couple of the new storylines,” she said, scooting her chair closer to the desk. “The one I’m most excited about is Deputy Grant meeting a new love interest. The owner of a Black Hills tourist destination not unlike…um…this one.”
Robyn’s left eyebrow rose in a questioning arc. “Wow. I didn’t see that coming. Sounds good for business. Do you plan to film on location?”
“How much time are we talking?”
“I don’t know, yet. Shane wanted to be sure you were onboard with the concept.”
“And there was some mention of filming at night, right?” Liam directed his question to Jenna, but he sensed Robyn’s gaze remained on him. “And we could do some scenes after Robyn closes for the season. Wasn’t there talk about a dramatic cliffhanger? The owner-slash-love-interest might be in danger. Maybe Robyn has some ideas to contribute.”
Robyn chuckled. “You mean how would I kill off someone around here? Ahh…no. Sorry. Except for the occasional stubbed toe or bumped head, our daily workings are extremely benign—just the way my insurance carrier likes it.”
Jenna cleared her throat. “This just came to me when we were talking about your mom. Feel free to veto with cause, but what if we can come up with a way to work your mother’s unusual inheritance in the plot?”
Robyn glanced at Liam, her expression gave away nothing but he sensed she wasn’t thrilled by the suggestion. “Because grand good luck always comes with strings attached? Believe me, the thought crossed my mind. I tossed and turned for a couple of months picturing some irate family member of Harold Hopewell’s showing up to create havoc.”
Liam knew the feeling. When your father was part tyrant, part master manipulator, you never took anything at face value. Jenna had told him about Robyn’s inheritance in confidence, but he’d also heard rumors of Marybeth Craine’s rich benefactor—and speculation about what the local nurse did to deserve such a generous gift—over lunch at The Tidbiscuit, Sentinel Pass’s favorite coffee shop-slash-gossip outlet.
He fully expected Robyn to say, “Nope. Find another storyline.”
“The money’s mostly in dirt now. Between paying you and your mom off and buying the property next door, I’m practically back where I started from.” She held up hands up in the universal oh-well gesture. “So, go for it. Your dad used to say truth is always the most compelling basis for fiction.”
He wondered if she honestly believed that or was she whistling in the dark to prove she was fearless? Is that how she rides, too? He wanted a chance to find out, but that might not happen once he got around to explaining his personal agenda.
Or, rather, his father’s.
“Great. I can’t wait to start brainstorming with Shane,” Jenna said getting up. She checked her slim, classy Rolex. “Oh, crum. I really have to run. Luca has a doggie play date with Beau, Jessie Bouchard’s Catahoula hound.” She rolled her eyes. “Can you believe it? I swear my dog is more demanding than a child.”
She typed a quick text message into her phone then waved goodbye. She turned around at the doorway and told Robyn, “I’ll have the PR department work up some memes and social media key words for you to use once we have the dates set in stone. And, of course, Shane or someone from legal will be in touch. Do you have a dollar figure in mind?”
Liam watched as they ball-parked a fee. Robyn’s facility for numbers impressed him, as did her apparent lack of greed. He’d heard of people asking for—and getting—sums far greater than what Robyn tossed out.
Before he could tell her she was getting screwed, she added, “Of course, that’s for night filming. You’ll have to match last year’s daily gross if you want me to close for a day.”
Bravo. Way to go.
He didn’t know why he felt protective of her. She obviously didn’t need his help or advice to handle her business. But seeing the way she bargained with Jenna made him feel better about the mission he’d reluctantly agreed to undertake for his father. Hopefully, Robyn Craine had what it took to avoid a negotiating bloodbath with Richard Marston. People didn’t call Dad “The Great White” without reason.
Jenna started to leave but paused to look from Robyn to Liam. “You know…the more I think about it, the more I like this love interest between you two…er…your characters.” Freudian slip? The twinkle in her eyes said not. “Picture a cutaway shot of the Hills. Two motorcycles. Black leather. One hot pink helmet. Pan long—”
Robyn made a staged cough. “That pink helmet better be on this guy’s head because mine is metallic midnight blue with the Big Dipper on one side and Orion on the other.”
Liam’s bark of laughter caught him off guard. So did the intense jolt of attraction he felt toward her. Feisty always got to him. Feisty reminded him of Chelsey.
Jenna took the criticism in stride. “Good point. No clichés. Your character is headstrong, independent, and a bit of a renegade. You know how proud I am of you, right?” She turned to Liam. “Running this place after my dad died nearly killed me, but look at Robyn. She’s not only thriving, she has plans to turn the Mystery Spot into a year-round venue.”
She wiggled her fingers in a wave of goodbye. “Don’t keep her for long, Liam. Today is Robyn’s first day off in a month. Heck. Why don’t you two hit the road and talk business later? Burning daylight, right?”
Robyn’s eyes went wide—as if she couldn’t believe Jenna just set them up on an impromptu date.
“Brilliant idea, Jenna. Thanks.”
“Just doing my part to keep you from getting lost again, Liam.”
“Ouch. Woman.” Liam clutched his chest as if she’d just pierced his heart with a dagger. “Is it my fault the phone service sucks in certain parts of the Hills and my map app has taken me places no man should go?”
Jenna shoved a pair of oversize dark glasses on her nose. “Have fun, but behave yourselves, youngsters.”
A small silence fell between them when the outer door closed. Liam, who was never at a loss for words, wasn’t sure where to begin.
“Can I get you anything? Bottled water?”
He shook his head. “No, thanks. Jenna’s right. I’ll get out of your hair in a minute. I feel a little weird playing messenger for my father. We aren’t exactly close. But he called yesterday and asked me to personally deliver a message to the new owner of the Mystery Spot.”
“Apparently, you have something of his. Or something that was his and he wants it back.”
“You bought a piece of property recently, right? You just mentioned something about expanding.”
“Yes. The sixty-acre lot next door.” She half-stood to reach through the half dozen folders neatly stacked on her desk. She pulled out one and flipped it open. She stabbed her finger to a name and looked at him. “Your father is connected to BellWeather Investments?”
“That’s one of his companies, but Dad has his fingers in a lot of pies around the country. BellWeather is an investment firm that belonged to Dad and two friends. They’ve since passed, so that probably makes him CEO by default.”
“They invested in a landlocked piece of property in the Black Hills? Why?”
Good question. “Dad said they were seduced by some fast-talking businessman after a private screening of Dances With Wolves. Apparently, at the time, people thought this area was going to experience a second gold rush…where the price of land was concerned.”
Her expression told him she didn’t think much of his father’s business acumen. An opinion that, despite this one lapse in judgment, was as far off base as you could get and still be in the game.
“Well, I don’t know how much he paid for the land, but I bought the property for unpaid taxes. Doesn’t sound to me like the place was too important to him. Is your dad’s name Temple?”
“No. I took my mother’s maiden name when I went into acting. Dad’s not a fan of my profession. His name is Richard Marston. If you were buying or selling property in Southern California, you’d recognize it.”
Her look of skepticism didn’t change.
“He’s in serious talks with the powers-that-be about making a run for the governor’s mansion in Sacramento.”
She opened the folder to show him half a dozen emails and letters bearing the BellWeather Investments letterhead. “He sounds like a busy man. So busy he lost track of a small piece of land in the Black Hills. Oh, well. Why the full court press to get it back?” She shook her head, sending her blond hair rippling across her shoulders. “See that blinking light on my answering machine? Calls from BellWeather staff, I guarantee it. Believe me, this is getting old.”
He set the piece of paper he’d used to scribble the very healthy six-figure offer his father had quoted him this morning on the desk between them. “Please, don’t shoot the messenger. Dad said to tell you he wants it back for sentimental reasons.”
She picked up the note and dropped it in the folder, which she immediately returned to the stack of files. “No, thanks. I’m not interested.”
The finality in her tone made him stifle a wince. Nobody says no to Richard Marston.
He got to his feet, feeling a little jittery. Dealing with his father always left him off-balance or in need of a beer. “I’ll call him tomorrow and let him know your answer. In the meantime, what about that ride?”
She stood, too. “I was supposed to join friends on a rally to Devil’s Tower. It’s too late to catch up, so I guess I’ll go to Harney Peak. Have you been there?”
“Nope. But, if you lead, I will follow.”
Her left eyebrow lifted in a skeptical look that reminded him of his sister. He’d called it Chelsey’s oh-sure-so-you-say look. Toward the end of her life, his sister hadn’t believed anyone. Not Mom. Never Dad. Especially not her doctors. But she’d trusted Liam. Until he let her down, too.
“Harney—I mean Black Elk Peak—I keep forgetting the name was changed, is the highest point east of the Rockies. I plan to hike to the top.”
“Does that involve ropes and pitons?” He looked down. “These are my only boots.”
She stepped close enough to tap the toe of her Doc Martin against the tip of his Alt-Bert Hogg Lite. “It’s a hike, not a climb. Those will work.”
She grabbed a couple bottles of water and stuffed them into a well-used backpack. As he watched her lock up, he realized Robyn Craine showed exactly the right attitude for Deputy Mason Grant’s new love interest. Smart, candid and capable. And sexy as hell in her leather vest and tight jeans.
Too bad Liam didn’t have the time or inclination for a quick fling with a local. If William Hughes, his Hollywood “star power” agent, was right, Liam’s big break was just a phone call away.
“Minimize your distractions. Study the script. They’ll want to see you in person the minute they get funding,” William had instructed Liam via Skype last night.
Was a smart, pretty, self-confident woman who straddled her bike with absolute mastery a distraction? Hell, yes.
A wise man would listen to his agent and turn in the opposite direction when they reached the main road, but Liam wasn’t the type to pass up a challenge. Especially a beautiful one.
* * *
“Text him again.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Marston, your son has either turned off his phone or lost service. From what he said earlier, cell service is very sketchy in the Black Hills.”
“When was their meeting?”
“This morning. At her place of business.” The woman handed him her state-of-art tablet. “The Mystery Spot is a tourist trap that’s been in business since the 1960s. Robyn Craine was in the process of buying it when her mother passed away. With a rather substantial inheritance, she was able to pay off the loan and buy the land next door.”
“My land,” Richard snapped.
Nothing irked him more than not being in complete control of every situation. Richard had fought hard to get to the point where loose ends never happened. People were either too scared or too far in his debt to risk crossing him. The six employees he’d fired last week may or may not have been involved in the screw-up that lost him control of a small piece of land in the Black Hills of South Dakota. They lost their jobs because somebody had to pay.
For the first time in nearly thirty years, he felt a cold, grimy hand reaching out of a shallow grave to grab him by the balls. He’d assumed his secret was safe for as long as he owned the land. Undeveloped. Unbothered.
But someone failed to pay the lousy property taxes. If the government notices arrived in his office, they went into the trash since any record of BellWeather’s ownership of the land had disappeared. Computer glitch? Human error? Karmic joke?
Richard punched his fist into the palm of his other hand. What happened on that property was a mistake. A stupid, drunken mistake that could have ruined his life, his future, and that of his two best friends. Richard, along with his buddies Brad Haimes and Craig Chancellor, had made the best of crazy situation. They’d cleaned up their mess and put it behind them.
When Brad died three years ago and Craig passed away last summer, Richard thought he was golden. Free to do anything he wanted. Even run for public office. No loose lips to sink his ship. No skeletons dangling in some closet, waiting to derail his run for governor.
Until he secretly checked on the worthless sixty-acre parcel and found it now belonged to someone named Robyn Craine. A quick call to a very reputable private eye brought even more bad news. “Ms. Craine was the protégé of Clarence Murphy, the man who built the tourist trap next door to your land, Mr. Marston. According to public records, Murphy lodged a complaint against BellWeather and the Trust that sold you the land in the first place shortly after you bought it. The authorities considered him a bit of crackpot, always complaining about something. Loud parties. Shots being fired. Fire danger. The cop I talked to said Mr. Murphy kept a log in his diary and was determined to get the land back, which he claimed he’d had on option at the time it was sold out from under him.”
But this Murphy character had been dead for years. He couldn’t have had a hand in Richard losing the title.
Richard paced to the window of his office and stared unseeing at LA’s smoggy skyline. “I need to know what’s happening,” he told his newest assistant. “Try my stupid son again. And keep calling until he picks up. I want to hear that the sneaky bitch who bought my land is going to sell it back to me.”
Not that Robyn Craine had any idea of what she bought. But Richard wasn’t in the mood to be generous or understanding. If Liam couldn’t sweet talk this gal into playing ball…well, there was always Plan B.
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