Taking a Stand

Taking a Stand
Ken Casper

December 2011 $13.95

From the author of As the Crow Dies
Our PriceUS$13.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

From the author of As the Crow Dies

Homebuilder Jesse Amorado and former Air Force Captain Tori Carr come from the same Texas town but from very different worlds.  When she returns home to Coyote Springs to help her father, a real-estate developer, turn a rundown neighborhood into an exclusive resort for the wealthy, Tori and Jesse immediately clash.  He'll do whatever it takes to save his heritage, and she is caught up in proving herself to her father.

As personal tensions rise and trouble begins to brew, Jesse and Tori fall in love despite it all.  They soon find, however, that they must not only confront powerful local interests and prejudices, they have to fight for their very lives.

Ken Casper is the author of more than 25 novels, including As the Crow Dies, book one of The Jason Crow West Texas mystery series.  He and his wife raise horses on a small ranch in Texas.  Visit him at http://www.kencasper.com.


"This book has it all and it was a marvelous reading experience. …a writer who knows how to tell a really good story and do it in such a way that the reader never wants to put down the book." -- Judith Hirsch-Fikejs, NetGalley Review

"…an exciting action-packed thriller… readers will relish this engaging tale…" -- Klausner’s Bookshelf



Tori Carr flew due west. The last leg of her journey home.

She clicked on her microphone. "Coyote tower. Twin Cessna, Romeo-Romeo-three-three-eight, ten miles east for landing.”

A momentary pause, then a crackling response. She adjusted her altimeter and checked her heading indicator.

Without warning a violent lurch flipped her hard over to the left. As she glimpsed a T-38 military trainer jetting out from under her, Tori grabbed the control yoke with both hands and centered the wheel. Her right leg stiffened on the rudder to overcome the spin while her hands rammed the yoke sharply forward. Then came the hollow-stomach sensation of careening headlong into a nosedive. With calculated slowness, she pulled back on the yoke. The plane shuddered violently.

Her heart pounded. Her blood raced. Her ears buzzed from the engines’ keening roar.

The rate of descent slowed.

She finally leveled off at a thousand feet, got her air speed under control. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck. She held extra pressure on the right rudder and adjusted the trim tab. Forcing a deep breath, she looked through the side window to assess the damage. Jagged metal glittered like tinsel in the sunlight. The right wing fairing was clipped. Bad? Certainly. But manageable.

The Cessna regained three thousand feet.

"Situation under control,” she told herself.

Then black smoke began ribboning from the amputated wing tip. The impact of the midair collision must have ruptured a fuel line.


"Mayday, Mayday,” she called on the radio. "This is twin Cessna three-three-eight. Mayday, Mayday. Right wing tip on fire. Repeat. I am on fire. Mayday, Mayday.”

Tori clawed the yoke with one hand and reached with the other to turn off the fuel-boost pump to engine number two. She feathered the propeller, watched it stop. She’d practiced single-engine emergencies before. Plenty of times. She could do it. She had to.

Her fingers were steady as she adjusted the trim tab to maintain level flight of the crippled aircraft. The fire continued to burn.

There was a maneuver . . . it was a gamble, but one she had to take. Flight boots glued to the rudder pedals, she forced the plane into a slip to the left. Left wing down. Full right rudder. Gloved hands clamped in a death grip on the controls, she rammed the yoke forward into another deliberate nosedive. Her shoulders knotted as the Cessna screamed and fell from the sky, leaving her stomach behind once more.

Again the rusty brown earth zoomed toward her as the wind tore at the flames. "Go out, damn it. Go out!” The savage land reached out to her like a magnet. Fifteen hundred feet.

"I didn’t resign my Air Force commission to die in this little Cessna,” she muttered to herself as the altimeter needle twirled counterclockwise.

A thousand feet.

Again the plane convulsed in bone-rattling tremors. She wasn’t just tempting fate—she was daring it. Five hundred feet.

At the last possible moment, the flames guttered out. Only the adrenaline of pure terror and relief gave her the superhuman strength to ease back on the yoke. G-forces plastered her to the seat as the aircraft swooped over a stand of pecan trees and began its upward swing above the cheated earth.

She surveyed the situation. The fire was out. Perspiration pooled between her breasts.

Clicking the mike button below her right thumb, she forced herself to speak calmly. "Mayday, Mayday. Coyote tower. This is twin Cessna three-three-eight. I have an in-flight emergency. Request immediate landing instructions. Mayday, Mayday.”

"Twin Cessna three-three-eight. You are cleared to land at your discretion. Runway one-eight. Emergency crew standing by.”

"Roger, tower. Going for runway one-eight.”

She heard the tower advising all other aircraft in the area to clear the pattern. She wasn’t home safe yet. Her life depended on keeping the plane straight and level in the glide path. The landing, less than a minute later, was a little rough, but with no more ballooning than she’d seen other pilots perform under much better conditions.

It wasn’t until she’d come to a halt in the middle of the runway that her limbs began to tremble, all strength spent. Even lifting her hand to fumble with the last power switch demanded extraordinary concentration.

Emergency vehicles were already surrounding her. She yanked off her headset and moved quickly to the back of the four-passenger compartment. A wall of hot, dry Texas air assailed her when she opened the door. The searing stench of raw aviation fuel invaded her nostrils. Impulsively she ran her fingers through her short blond hair and skittered down the ladderlike steps into the brilliant summer sun. She was home.

Tori dashed on rubbery legs as far as possible from the plane while crash vehicles disgorged their crews. A foam truck stood by ready to douse the wing, or the whole craft, if necessary. Only heat waves radiated from the scorched metal.

A canvas-topped Jeep pulled up to within a few feet of her. A man, probably in his sixties, with parched, sun-wrinkled brown skin, smiled reassuringly at her.

"You must be Tori Carr. Name’s Sam. Sam Hargis.” He tipped his soiled baseball cap, which said Hargis Aviation. She’d arranged to moor her plane on his pad. "That was some flying you just did, lady. I haven’t seen aerobatics like that since my daddy took me to see some barnstorming at a county fair.” Fumbling in a cooler behind his seat, he extracted a frosty can of soda and offered it to her.

"Thanks.” She accepted it gratefully and hoped he didn’t notice her hands shaking as she popped the tab. She gulped. The cold drink burned the back of her throat.

"If you ever want to get a job crop-dusting or giving stunt-flying lessons, you just let me know,” the old man said. "There’s half a dozen outfits around here that could use you.”

She gave him a wide grin. "Sam, you couldn’t pay me enough to do that again, much less for a living.”

He chuckled. "Anyway, that was mighty impressive. Jump in. Your folks are waiting for you at the hangar.” She climbed onto the hot canvas seat.

At the corner of the old wooden building, a tall, strapping man gave her a thumbs-up as they drove by, then tucked his big hands in the back pockets of snug jeans. The shadow cast by his white cowboy hat masked his features, but Tori could feel his eyes following her as the open vehicle pulled into the shade of the cavernous structure.

Sam drew the Jeep to a stop as Tori caught sight of her father and his secretary running toward her. His partner walked rapidly behind them. She jumped to the ground and was instantly swallowed up in a hearty bear hug. The familiar scent of her father’s aftershave conjured up ghosts of love and sadness.

"Thank God you’re safe,” Winslow Carr whispered huskily in her ear. He released her quickly, as though embarrassed at his emotional display, and held her at arm’s length. "I was listening to the tower chatter in Sam’s office. You scared me out of a year’s growth, young lady.” The quaver in his voice stole even the pretense of harshness from his words.

"I’m fine, Dad,” she assured him. "Really.”

He offered her a small bouquet of cut flowers. Several of the stems were bent, the entire collection askew.

"I guess I got a little nervous watching you come in,” he said sheepishly.

She paused for a second to get past the lump in her throat. "Thanks, Dad. They’re lovely.” She kissed him on the cheek.

His secretary, Lydia Anderson, was next. Her silver bracelets jangled as she threw her arms around Tori. "You could have been killed up there,” she said in a strained voice.

Tori was tempted to quip that it was all in a day’s work, but the anxiety in the older woman’s face told her this wasn’t a time for levity. "I’m fine,” she said, and gave her a loving kiss on the cheek.

Finally there was Burton, her father’s business partner. Burton Hazlitt, with his big muscles and mischievous grin. She’d had an affair with him right after she was commissioned, the consummation of years of flirtation. But by her next visit home, she knew their relationship was over, on that level, at least. He’d tried several times to rekindle it, but his attempts were only halfhearted, more a game than passionate seduction. The repartee they’d fallen into since then was amusing and flattering, but neither of them took it seriously. Still, he’d been her first lover, and she couldn’t help feeling a nostalgic affection for him.

He stood before her now, a fireplug of a man, his bulging arms bowed out from his stocky body, his hands by his sides. Obviously he was still pumping iron.

"You sure know how to make an entrance,” he said, and gave her an openhanded salute. She chuckled softly when she realized she almost saluted back.

"At ease, Burton.”

He dropped his hand and leaned forward, clutched her upper arms and gave her a stiff, formal kiss on the right cheek. She grinned at his mockery and decided not to tell him that even without heels on, she could see his brown hair was beginning to thin on top. As he repeated the gesture on her other cheek, she glanced over his shoulder to the side of the wide doorway. The cowboy in the snug jeans had turned his back and was walking away. She doubted he had a bald spot on the top of his head, but then with his height she wouldn’t have been able to see it anyway, even with heels on.

It took less than half an hour to file her mishap report with the Federal Aviation Administration. Then she stopped by the tower to thank the controller for his help. The T-38, she learned, had been from the Air Force base near the Mexican border. The pilot, on routine low-level maneuvers, had been practicing instrument approaches to the airfield but veered from his pattern and hadn’t seen Tori’s plane above him. He’d clipped his own vertical stabilizer in the midair collision but was able to get back to home base safely.

Tori returned to her waiting family.

Burton picked up the single piece of luggage she’d retrieved from the plane when Hargis towed it into the hangar. "Is this everything?”

"The Air Force is shipping the rest,” she told him. Her father and Lydia were already walking across the shiny painted hangar floor to the parking lot. "It should be here in a day or two.”

"You sure travel light—” he looked at her with the seductive little grin that used to send her pulse skittering "—for a woman.”

She laughed. "Sounds like you’ve had a lot of experience traveling with women.”

Judging from his not-so-coy leer, he regarded the put-down as a compliment.

Tori took a closer look at her father, a few steps ahead. He was only fifty, but his once-square build was beginning to appear more barrel-shaped. Obviously, he wasn’t watching his diet. And Lydia had reported that he’d also become obsessed with his real estate ventures.

Burton had parked his forest green Jaguar on the shady side of the hangar. He deposited her flight bag in the trunk while Winslow and Lydia climbed into the back seat.

"I wondered how long you’d stick it out,” Burton commented as he held open the front passenger door for Tori. "You lasted longer than I thought. But I knew eventually you’d quit.”

"Quit?” she gasped as he slammed the door and walked around the front of the vehicle.

Her father reached forward from the back seat and placed his hand on her shoulder. "I hope you’re not too disappointed about the Air Force not working out, sweetheart. Military life isn’t for everyone.”

She bit her lip. Listening to Burton and her father, one would think she hadn’t accomplished anything since she’d graduated from the Air Force Academy at the top of her class.

"The only reason I joined,” she reminded him, "was to fly. Color blindness kept me from doing that for Uncle Sam, but I can still fly commercially. And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a damned good pilot.”

"But why come back here?” Burton asked as he got in and buckled up. "This isn’t exactly a mecca for jumbo jets.”

The hint of condescension in his question annoyed her.

"I’ve applied to the airlines that fly into Coyote Springs,” she told him. "In the meantime, I thought I’d spend some time with y’all. Lydia tells me you’re up to your eyeteeth in this Riverbend project.”

"Going to help us out, huh?” Burton started the engine. "Well, I’m sure we’ll be very grateful.”

"God, Burt, you’re as chauvinistic as ever.” She buckled her seat belt, satisfied with the little tick of displeasure she’d provoked. He didn’t mind being called a chauvinist, but he hated being called Burt. Lydia made a noise from the back seat that sounded suspiciously like a giggle.

"How’s Riverbend coming?” Tori asked as they pulled out into the bright afternoon sunshine.

"Great,” her father replied enthusiastically. "All the plans are drawn, most of the property has been bought or optioned and our contractors are standing by, ready to start development within thirty days.”

One thing she’d learned from the military and diplomatic briefings she’d set up as an executive officer in the Pentagon was the judicious use of words.

"You said most of the property is accounted for.”

"We’ve got one holdout,” Burton explained.

"Tell me about it.”

"Not much to tell. Jesse Amorado’s a small-time builder who owns half a dozen rental houses in the barrio, and he’s playing hard to get. Don’t worry about him. It’s just a matter of money. I’ll bring him around.”



The moving van arrived on Wednesday. The first thing unloaded was Tori’s Corvette. She’d bought the red sports car for a good price from a fellow officer who’d gotten himself into a financial bind. Anticipating coming home, she’d registered it in Texas with her own personalized license plates—TORI. She checked it out after the long journey as carefully as she inspected her plane before a flight.

As for the rest of her possessions, there weren’t many. She selected a few of her favorite treasures to decorate her father’s guest room—an antique mantel clock from London, some Delft from Amsterdam, crystal from Italy and an oil painting from Paris. The rest she stored in the garage until she could find a place of her own.

To her delight, a letter arrived the following morning from a major airline in Dallas, inviting her to come for an interview. She called them immediately and was pleased they were able to schedule her for Friday afternoon. She booked the last flight that night from Coyote Springs to Dallas, then went to the airport early to check on her Cessna.

"Repair’s not a problem,” Sam Hargis told her, and showed her exactly what had been damaged. "The question is how long it’ll take to get parts. Could be anywhere from ten days to ten weeks.”

While they talked airplanes, she kept an eye peeled for the tall cowboy, but didn’t see him and couldn’t think of an unobtrusive way to ask about him.

"I run a charter service, too,” Sam told her. "How about coming to work for me?”

Tori laughed and explained why she was on her way to Dallas.

"Well, you ever change your mind, you let me know. I can always use an experienced pilot, especially one who can keep her cool in a crisis.”

LYDIA WAS ALONE Monday morning when Tori arrived at her father’s office. Winslow and Burton had gone to an early city council meeting. There were half a dozen agents who worked out of offices down the hall, but they usually used the door at the other end of the building, so Tori didn’t run into any of them.

"How did your job interview in Dallas go?” Lydia asked as she finished filling out a form on her computer screen.

Tori plopped into the chair next to the desk. "Overall, I guess it was positive. I’m not very comfortable blowing my own horn. I didn’t relax until we started talking airframes and performance characteristics. Now I wonder if I didn’t come across as a little too opinionated.”

In fact, the civilian world was a culture shock. She’d never had to look for a job before. In the military, work was assigned and pay was defined by law. Now she was faced with questions about how much "compensation” to ask for and what conditions of employment were negotiable.

"I’m sure you did fine. When will you find out?”

Restless, Tori got up and went to the credenza in the corner, poured herself some vanilla-flavored coffee, then brought the pot back and refilled Lydia’s cup.

"It’s decaf,” Lydia pointed out. "What your father doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

"Sneaky.” Smiling, Tori returned the carafe and resumed her seat. "They said they’d notify me within thirty days. Could be a hell of a month.” She took a sip of the steaming brew. "I’m not very good at waiting.”

Lydia pecked away at her keyboard as she talked. "Take some time off, go sightseeing, kick up your heels.”

Tori shook her head. "I need to keep busy. Dad told me last night he’s having some problems with this Riverbend project. I got the impression he’s beginning to panic.”

"Things have gone a lot slower than he expected.”

"Maybe I can help. You know, check out the lay of the land. Can you give me a list of the properties Dad owns in the Santa Marta district?”

"That’s easy.” Lydia manipulated her computer mouse, changed the screen to a series of icons, then clicked on one of them to bring up a database. She asked over her shoulder, "Just the ones we own, or the ones we manage, too?”

Tori thought a moment. "Both.”

"It’s a pretty long list.” Lydia poked at some keys. "Looking for anything in particular?”

"I just want to see what our holdings are.”

Several sheets of paper rolled through the laser printer.

"These are the addresses of the properties we own,” Lydia explained, pointing to the headings at the top, "and these are the ones we manage.” She handed the sheets to Tori and settled back in her chair. "I’d better warn you, honey. Santa Marta doesn’t look the way you remember it. A lot’s happened in the past couple of years. You’ve got to understand that all those places are going to be torn down to make way for the Riverbend project.”

Tori nodded absently as she browsed through the lists.

"Just a minute,” the older woman said, and straightened up. Her ringed fingers skimmed deftly along the keyboard. The printer whiffed and another list came spewing out. "Here are the properties we don’t own or manage but have options on. As you can see, just about everybody’s committed to Riverbend.”

"Except Amorado.”

"You got it. The last holdout.”

IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG to get into the heart of Santa Marta. As a child, Tori had loved coming here after school to wait for one of her parents to pick her up on their way home from work. She’d been fascinated by the lilting speech and the wonderful vitality that seemed to permeate everything. The bakery and tortilla factory brought back happy childhood memories of warm fruit empanadas and honey-sweet sopapillas. There was heartbreak, too—the memory of her mother getting killed here. But she wasn’t going to dwell on that now. She had a mission to accomplish.

As she meandered through the curbless streets, Tori understood why Lydia had warned her that things had changed. The old neighborhood had never boasted the lushness of Woodhill Terrace, where her father lived, but now it looked battered, run-down, neglected. A shiver of sadness rippled through her for a time that was no more.

Finally, she drove slowly down South Travis Street. Her eye caught sight of blue-and-white ceramic tiles spelling out Amorado Construction on the left side of the road. The narrow, nondescript stucco building was in a sort of no-man’s-land between cheap commercial structures and the heart of the barrio. Burton said bringing around this last holdout was a matter of money. From the looks of the place, it shouldn’t take much. So why hadn’t he succeeded?

On an impulse she decided to find out what Jesse Amorado was like. Gruff and hard of hearing? Or would he be all Latin charm and cunning? For that matter, did he even speak English? Her fingernails drummed the leather-covered steering wheel as she watched several mud-caked pickup trucks go by in both directions.

When the coast was clear, she zipped into one of six empty parking spaces in front of the building. After she climbed out of the sports car, she checked her lipstick in the reflection of the driver’s side window, adjusted her buff calf-length silk skirt and matching sleeveless vest and proceeded to the aged, wood-frame glass door in the middle of the single-story building.

As she opened it, a bell tinkled inside, reminding her of the sound of the bells they used during Sunday Mass at the old Spanish church a few blocks away. She resisted the temptation to close the door quietly in the silence of the tiny room.

"I’ll be with you in a minute,” a voice called out from somewhere in back, its male resonance filling the hollow space around her.

The reception room, if you wanted to call it that, was austere. Unadorned rough walls painted stark white, a battered oak desk that looked as if it might have come from a 1940s schoolhouse, a few equally ancient, stiff wooden chairs, a rag rug on the quarry-tile floor. Amorado Construction didn’t make much of a first impression.

"How can I help you?” The deep masculine baritone was close behind her this time, its richness compelling her to face its owner.

She turned and thought instantly of the cowboy she’d seen at the airport, the man standing in the shadows of the hangar.

"I’m Tori Carr.”

He extended his hand. It was large, warm and rough with calluses. She was considered tall, but she still had to look up to meet his gaze. A smile tugged the corners of her mouth. No way would she see a bald spot on his head, even if she was wearing heels. And obviously this man’s thick, shiny black hair wasn’t thinning.

"I’m Jesse Amorado. What can I do for you?”

She looked around the room. "Is there someplace we can talk?”

"How about my office?” He swept a hand toward the doorway he’d just come through.

"After you,” she said.

She liked the way the creases beside his wide mouth intensified when he grinned back at her. He preceded her through the narrow passageway. She was vaguely aware of a little filing room to her left, but her attention was drawn to the broad back that tapered down like an arrowhead, pointing to the man’s narrow waist and slender hips. Definitely not what she’d expected.

He motioned her to a worn, tapestry-upholstered wooden chair in front of a desk. "Please sit down. I was just fixing coffee. Would you like some?”

She looked up. He had high, wide cheekbones that hinted handsomely of Native American descent; his complexion was olive-toned. She also noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Didn’t mean a thing, she told herself. A lot of pilots didn’t, either. For safety reasons. Made playing around easier, too.

Now, what had he asked? Oh, yes, something about coffee. She’d already had two cups. Her limit. Besides, this wasn’t a social visit. But before she knew it, she was acquiescing, "Yes, thank you.”

He disappeared into a small alcove, giving her a chance to examine the office more carefully. Larger than the outside room, its atmosphere was considerably warmer. The cherrywood desk was old but so well oiled that even the chips and cracks in its fine veneer took on a glowing nobility.

She noted, too, the homey display of framed photographs on the walls. One showed Jesse romping on the lawn with a youngster of five or six. The boy had Jesse’s big brown eyes and clearly loved the man he was playing with. Another captured a laughing Jesse tossing a toddler in a colorful dress high into the air. The little girl was giggling with glee, totally confident that Jesse’s big strong hands would be there to catch her. In the third photo, Jesse was standing behind a pretty raven-haired woman who was sitting on a backyard swing, his hands resting comfortably, assuringly, on her shoulders. The boy and girl stood on either side of her, their little fingers intertwined with hers. All of them were smiling contentedly into the camera.

That’s what I’d like someday, Tori thought with an unexpected pang of longing. A happy family with lots of kids.

She almost jumped when Jesse reached in front of her and deposited a scarred but colorfully painted metal tray on the corner of the desk. The service was complete, if unconventional: sugar in an old tin canister and milk still in its plastic quart container. The spoons didn’t match, nor did the two ceramic mugs. But the steam rising from them emitted an aroma that was rich and inviting.

"I hope you like strong coffee. This is my own blend. Colombian and French roast with a touch of cinnamon.” He set the light blue mug in front of her and took the chipped brown one for himself. "I recommend milk and sugar unless you’re particularly brave.”

"Black is fine.”

He shrugged almost imperceptibly and added milk and sugar generously to his own.

She took a sip and instantly wished she’d taken his advice. The concoction tasted like burned mud.

He didn’t miss the shocked look on her face and barely managed to keep his expression neutral.

"It’s delicious,” she said with a slightly forced smile, "but . . .”

He chuckled softly and pushed the tray toward her.

Taking her cue from him, she added two heaping spoonfuls of sugar and filled the cup to nearly overflowing with milk.

"Much better,” she said after tasting it. "Thanks.”

"That was quite an exhibition you put on the other day,” he said. "Are you home on leave from the Air Force, Captain?”

She raised an eyebrow, surprised he knew she had been in the service.

"Every time you moved to another assignment or got another medal,” Jesse explained, "your name was in the paper announcing it.”

The information startled her. She didn’t know her father had publicized those details.

"I’m not a captain anymore. I resigned my commission. I’m looking into other career options now and thought I’d help my father out for a while.”

He gazed at her for a long minute, took a deep breath, then exhaled. "What can I do for you?”

Behind his desk was a large map of Coyote County with the city of Coyote Springs clearly outlined. She pointed to six properties prominently marked with colored pins.

"You own several houses in the barrio.”

He leaned back in his swivel chair. "You mean the Santa Marta district? They’re not for sale, Miss Carr.”

"Oh, come, Mr. Amorado.” She smiled ingratiatingly. His widely spaced eyes were as dark as Kahlúa. A woman could lose herself in those mysterious depths. "Investment property is always for sale. It’s simply a matter of the right price. My father’s prepared to give you top dollar.”

"They’re still not for sale.”

So he was going to play hardball. That didn’t surprise her. She’d do the same thing in his place. "Of course they are. You can’t live in all of them, and why would you want to, anyway?”

"I beg your pardon?”

"I’m just saying that from what I’ve seen of the barrio, most of the houses are pretty run-down. Some are little more than shacks, hardly habitable.”

"But people do live in them. And my shacks are no worse than the ones around them that your father owns.”

"That’s exactly why we’re planning to tear ours down and—”

"What about the people who live in them?” He leaned back in his chair.

Mirroring his action, she leaned back, too, then decided to go for broke. "Believe me, I know how unsettling moving can be. I’ve done a lot of it in the past few years. But it’s not as if the residents would have to leave Coyote Springs. There are other places to live right here in town.”

Places are like things, she wanted to tell him. They can be changed. It’s people we love who can never be replaced.

She picked up her cup and took another small sip of coffee. Its richness was addictive. "As you probably know, the government offers several low-cost mortgage-assistance programs, and for people who can’t afford to buy, there are other options.”

"You mean the public housing over on the east side of town?”

Public housing. It wasn’t a term she would have chosen to use. She’d seen so-called public housing in several large cities: rat-infested, crime-ridden hellholes in which human life was sometimes valued less than the price of a hit of crack or a line of cocaine. The idea of sentencing the people of Santa Marta to the environment of big-city tenements was totally abhorrent to her. But, of course, this wasn’t a big city. This was Coyote Springs.

His next question was pointed, accusatory. "How much do you know about Coyote Springs, Miss Carr?”

"I was born and raised here, Mr. Amorado.”

"So you call it home. But you haven’t spent very much time here in the past few years, have you? And even when you did live here, how much did you get to know the place?”

"Perhaps more than you realize.”

"Then you know public housing has the worst crime rate in the city, while Santa Marta—” he emphasized the last words "—has one of the lowest. Right behind Woodhill Terrace, where your father lives. Although I’m sure if white-collar crime were counted in the statistics, Woodhill would have an even higher crime rate than Santa Marta. There aren’t too many white collars in this district.”

The implied insult wasn’t lost on Tori, but she held her tongue. Instead, she sized up the man in front of her . . . until she realized he was doing a reconnaissance of her, too, starting at the vee of her vest. She toyed nervously with her gold necklace, then self-consciously dropped her hand into her lap. The man behind the desk was positively disconcerting.

"I’ll tell you why Santa Marta has such a low crime rate,” he went on steadily. "We’re family here. Sure, like any family, we have our disagreements from time to time. When we do, we take care of them among ourselves.”

"Ah. That’s very interesting.” She couldn’t resist indulging in a bit of sarcasm. "But it sounds like what you’re saying is that there’s just as much crime here as on the north side. You just keep it better hidden.”

Jesse took a deep breath and tightened his grip on the arm of the chair. "I’m not saying that at all,” he countered, then paused. "But I’m not going to argue with you about it, either. As I told you, my property is not for sale.”

Tori wasn’t pleased with her outburst. Trading barbs would accomplish nothing. The secret to successful negotiation was to take whatever he wanted to dish out, as long as in the end Carr Enterprises got his signature on a contract of sale. It rankled that she was losing control while he wasn’t. Only the rhythmic throbbing of the vein in his neck beneath the smooth, strong jaw-line indicated any tension. His sensuous lips were smiling.

Maybe another approach.

"Look, Mr. Amorado, let’s examine the financial angle for a moment. My father owns or has control of most of the property in the barrio.”

Jesse opened his mouth to say something, but she raised a hand to keep him from interrupting. "Excuse me, Santa Marta.”

His nod was almost imperceptible. She went on.

"I think you’ll agree this is a great opportunity to develop it into something this entire city can be proud of. Riverbend will bring money and prestige to Coyote Springs, and with it, new jobs. That’s going to help your people, as well as the rest of the city.”

He frowned. "Miss Carr, I guess you haven’t been listening. So let me say it again. My properties are not for sale.”

She pressed on anyway. "I’m not going to kid you. Your holdings are important to my father’s venture. That’s why I’m here—to open up dialogue. I’m sure if we try, we can find common ground and reach a mutually acceptable compromise. Look, Name a price. Let’s see if we can’t use that as a starting point to work something out.”

He shook his head, his eyes narrowed. "That’s all you think about, isn’t it? Money. Well, you’re wrong. This isn’t about money—it’s about people. But you don’t care about them, you and your father and his partner. All you see is a chance to make another killing at the expense of the same people you’ve been victimizing for years. I’m afraid, Miss Carr, we have a basic disagreement. I’m not interested in selling my properties in Santa Marta to your father or anyone else.” He leaned toward her, his chair squeaking slightly. "On the other hand, perhaps I can persuade you to sell me yours. "




"You buy us out?” Her back stiffened. The idea was ridiculous, preposterous. "Impossible.”

"Why? As you said, you aren’t going to live in any of them. So you must own them for speculation.” She winced as he threw her words back at her. "Why not let me buy you out?”

"They’re not for sale.”

"But you just told me investment property is always for sale. So what’s your price?”

This was not going well. Somehow he’d reversed the tables, putting her on the defensive. She took a slow, deep breath and smiled.

"Touché, Mr. Amorado. But I’m here to buy, not to sell.”

"Why not?” he persisted, his coolness adding further to her discomfort.

"Because we’ve got plans for—”

"Oh, I see,” he interrupted, his words slow and dripping with scorn. "So they are for sale, but not to just anybody.” He raised an eyebrow in a challenge. "Or perhaps you just don’t want to sell to a Mexican?”

"I don’t like your insinuation, Mr. Amorado. Whether you are Mexican or not has nothing to do with our willingness to sell.”

"As a matter of fact, Miss Carr,” he said quietly, "I’m not Mexican. I’m American.”

She could feel her face growing hot. "That was your word, not mine. What you choose to call yourself doesn’t make any difference. Carr Enterprises isn’t going to sell to you or anyone else, because we have our own plans for Santa Marta.”

"Well, it just so happens,” he countered, "that I do, too. Plans to build it up, not tear it down. Plans to improve conditions for the people who live here, not dispossess them. You see, I’ve heard enough about your Riverbend project, Miss Carr, to know that your father and his partner want to destroy Santa Marta, level it, so they can turn it into paradise by the river, one of their exclusive developments with big lots, custom-built houses and professional landscaping. Expensive homes for extravagant people.”

He was right, of course. There was no point denying it. But she didn’t see any reason to apologize for it, either. "My father builds luxury homes, Mr. Amorado. But no one is forced to live in them. People buy them because they can afford to and because they appreciate quality.”

"It’s funny, Miss Carr,” Amorado went on, his dark features taking on a determined hardness. "Nobody worried about people living at the bend of the river when it flooded every time it rained—unless their servants didn’t show up for work on time or the mud kept the rent collector from the swift completion of his appointed rounds.”

Tori shook her head in protest, but before she could speak, Amorado continued. "I know, Miss Carr, because I grew up here. I had to wade knee-deep in water along the only dirt roads in the city to get to the school bus up on the paved main road. Nobody gave a second thought to Santa Marta then.” He brushed back the shock of hair that had fallen across his wide forehead. His deep voice was mocking. "But now that the river has been dammed, mi barrio—” He stopped abruptly, as if shaken by his slip into Spanish. "Santa Marta has suddenly become prime real estate, a charming little spot in the horseshoe of the Coyote River. And Winslow Carr, slumlord, wants to turn it into a high-class neighborhood.” He picked up a glossy brochure from his desk and read, "A place suitable for sophisticated people who can truly appreciate its beauty and value.”

The man was obviously inflexible. But Tori wasn’t going to let his remarks about her father pass unchallenged.

"My father, Mr. Amorado, is not a slumlord, nor is he insensitive to other people’s problems. I’m sorry you had a rough childhood. It seems to have left a chip on your shoulder the size of Coyote Mesa.”

She rose with as much dignity as she could muster and turned to the doorway. He might think he’d won the first skirmish, she told herself, but the battle wasn’t over, not by a long shot.

JESSE STOOD AND WATCHED her stride purposefully through the narrow passageway. The spring-mounted bell jangled angrily as the front door slammed. A minute later, he heard the bass rumble of her car starting. It reverberated through him.

He got up from his desk and looked out the side window in time to catch a glimpse of the red Corvette as it squealed down the street.

"The joke, Miss Carr,” he said out loud, "would have been on me if you’d taken me up on my offer.”

There was no way he could buy out Winslow Carr. He was having enough trouble keeping up mortgage payments on the properties he already owned. His plan was to gradually upgrade each of them, then buy others and improve them, as well. Santa Marta would never be another Woodhill Terrace, but at least the word barrio in the mouth of a smug Anglo like Tori Carr wouldn’t be synonymous with slum.

Of course, if old Mrs. Ramos’s son got arrested again, she’d bail him out—again. Which meant she wouldn’t be paying her rent this month, either, putting even more strain on his cash reserves.

He finished his coffee, which had suddenly grown bitter, and looked at the half-empty mug on the other side of the desk. He could still picture Tori’s lips poised above its rim. He smiled crookedly as he picked it up and noticed the traces of her lipstick. If only she weren’t the daughter of Winslow Carr.

TORI HAD TO FORCE HERSELF to control her speed along South Travis Street. Having to steer around the ubiquitous potholes helped. Suddenly she burst into laughter. Her father had written her about a program the city had inaugurated to finance repair of some of the streets. "Buy a pothole.” He’d bought a dozen in their names. She wondered which of the ones she was maneuvering around belonged to her.

The momentary distraction at least gave her heart time to slow its wild pounding. But the emotional turmoil generated by her brief encounter with Jesse Amorado was still very much on her mind. Was it the hard stance he had taken that had her so agitated—or the man himself?

She turned onto San Jacinto Boulevard, the main business artery of Coyote Springs, and a new kind of tension began to eat its way up from her stomach. Should she tell her father and Burton about her visit with Amorado?

There was no clattering bell when she opened the heavy plate-glass door of Carr Enterprises. No bare walls or scarred schoolhouse furniture to greet her here. Instead, across a wide expanse of plush vermilion carpet, Lydia stood at a row of filing cabinets, the gold bangles on her wrists jingling as she sorted through a pile of folders.

She looked up and greeted Tori with a broad smile. "I didn’t expect you back so soon. I figured you’d be checking out the mall. There’s a fresh pot of coffee if you want some.”

Tori thought about the rich blend she’d sipped only a few minutes earlier and the man who had served it.

"No, thanks. I’ve had my quota for today. Is Dad available?”

"He’s with Burt,” Lydia said. "But there’s no one else with them. Why don’t you just go in?”

Lydia’s desk was between two sets of double doors that faced each other. Tori walked to the pair on the right, gave two sharp raps in military fashion and entered the room without waiting for a response.

Burton was sitting behind his glass-topped desk, her father in the black leather chair across from him. Both men rose as she entered. She stifled the reflex to say, "As you were, gentlemen,” and chuckled to herself. After nearly a decade of military protocol, civilian life was going to take some getting used to.

"Hi, sweetheart.” Her father took her by the hand and led her to the other visitor’s chair.

"Am I interrupting something?” she asked when everyone was seated again.

"Nope,” Burton replied, a hint of mischief animating his still-boyish face. "But I bet your ears were burning.”

Tori looked from one man to the other. Like two little boys, she thought with amusement, bursting to tell her a secret. She lifted an eyebrow slightly. "Oh?”

"Burton and I were just talking about you,” her father explained, sounding very pleased with himself. "As you know, he owns one-third of Carr Enterprises and I own the other two-thirds. I’ve decided to give you half of my interest. That way the three of us will be equal partners.”

Tori was flabbergasted. Her father knew she’d left a promising career in the Air Force because she wanted to fly for a commercial airline, preferably one that would allow her to make Coyote Springs her home base. She fully intended to help him with his business in the meantime, but not as a permanent occupation. She didn’t even know if she’d like working in real estate. Besides, just last week, both men had practically called her a failure, a quitter. It didn’t seem like a very good basis for a partnership.

"I’ll continue to handle current sales,” her father went on happily. He had a reputation for being able to sell anything to anyone, which was one reason Tori was so surprised he hadn’t been able to make any headway with Amorado.

"Burton will still take care of property management,” he continued. "It’s our major source of steady income.”

"Santa Marta looks pretty bad,” she remarked.

"There’s no point in putting a lot of money into places that are going to be torn down,” Burton said a little defensively. "Santa Marta’s only part of our investment.”

She didn’t want to get into a debate about business practices. "What about me?” she asked skeptically. "What would I do?”

"I . . . we . . . thought you could handle public relations,” Burton offered. "You know, entertain prospective clients and investors, especially for Riverbend. Give them tours of the city, sell them on the advantages of getting in on the ground floor of the newest and biggest development this area has ever seen.”

She looked to her father to get his reaction, but he only smiled back complacently.

"You want me to play tour guide?” Her heart sank. "I did that as a second lieutenant—for generals and admirals and members of Congress—when I worked at the Pentagon.” She’d made sure their quarters were ready, their wet bars well stocked, their spouses suitably distracted—and she’d hated catering to whims rather than dealing with issues, watching while other people made meaningful decisions. At that point she’d realized she’d have to compete twice as hard to prove herself in this man’s world. But she hadproven herself and soon found herself in charge of multimillion-dollar defense contracts. Now Burton and her father wanted to hire her as a hostess!

Remembering her discussion with Jesse Amorado less than an hour earlier, she pictured how he’d looked at her. He’d seen a woman, too, but he’d respected her as an equal—enough to argue with her and not be afraid to win.

"That’s not what I came home for, Dad,” she said, unable to hide her disappointment.

Confusion clouded her father’s eyes. "Honey . . . We just thought . . .”

"If that’s what you need me to do while I’m here, of course I’ll do it. But you don’t have to make me a partner.”

The discomfort on her father’s face was palpable. The expression on Burton’s was more complex. He looked puzzled, but she thought she also saw a note of approval in his quiet nod, as if she had passed some secret test.

"I tell you what,” she said, lightening her tone. "I’ll take on your PR campaign until I get an offer from one of the airlines. But why don’t you also take advantage of some of the negotiating skills your tax dollars have paid for?”

She studied her father more closely, noted the lines of fatigue etched around his mouth, the expanding crow’s feet and the complexion that seemed more gray than pink.

"Tell me again about Riverbend,” she said. "You mentioned the other evening that Jesse Amorado was the last holdout. Maybe I can get him to sell.”

Burton brightened. "Do you know him?”

Tall, dark, with broad shoulders and narrow hips, long straight nose, perfect white teeth, and big strong hands. Her face grew warm when she realized Burton was staring at her. "Yeah,” she said, "I met him once.”

"Win,” Burton said, turning to her father, "neither of us has been able to get anywhere with Amorado. Maybe we ought to give Tori a shot at this barrio baron. If anyone can persuade him to surrender—for a good price, of course—I bet she can.” He winked wickedly at her.

She glared back.

"Hey,” he chided with a soft chuckle. "What’s happened to the sense of humor you used to have?”

For a moment she regretted not being in uniform. No one patronized her then. She gave Burton a withering glance. "Let’s get on with it.”

Winslow Carr stepped over to the side wall of the spacious office. It was covered from floor to ceiling with a framed board. One portion showed the same county map Amorado had tacked to his wall. This one was mounted on metal so color-coded magnetic markers could be used to indicate various properties. Next to the map was a blowup of their plans for the barrio.

Her father waved his hand across the board to half a dozen bright red dots. "Amorado’s six plots are scattered all over the place and will interfere with every aspect of the project.”

Burton rose from his chair, removed an engraved gold pencil from his breast pocket and used it as a pointer. Tori was instantly struck by the difference between his hands and Amorado’s. Burton’s were strong, but they had lost the coarseness and cobweb of axle grease and crankcase oil they’d had when he’d spent every spare moment working on his motorcycle. These days they were carefully manicured, more accustomed to holding fine crystal snifters and wineglasses than oil cans or torque wrenches. They were the hands of a weekend golfer, not a mechanic. Jesse’s were larger, harder, with long, straight, tough-skinned fingers. She remembered their warmth when they’d held her own.

"This one . . .” Burton pointed to a red dot ". . . is right in the middle of the golf course. This other one’s in the shopping mall. Those two are in prime residential areas. That one’s in the schoolyard. And this one, Amorado’s place, sits right where we plan to build the clubhouse.”

"Amorado lives in Santa Marta?” Tori exclaimed, recalling the best-looking home in the barrio. "The house on Otero Street?”

"That’s the one,” her father said.

She wanted to kick herself. No wonder Amorado had turned hostile so quickly. She’d called his home a shack. Do better research, she resolved, before the next time you meet him.

"And there’s no way to build around his properties,” Burton concluded.

They discussed other aspects of the project, as well: the architects they had under contract, the builders they had under option, zoning waivers they were requesting, utility changes that would have to be negotiated. It was a complex undertaking, the kind Tori found absorbing.

"I commanded a logistics detachment for two years,” she reminded them. "I know bureaucratic red tape. Why don’t you let me take care of getting zoning waivers, permits and licenses downtown?”

"I’ve got a handle on that,” Burton countered. "Developed the contacts, made the connections. No sense changing horses in midstream. Just see what you can do with Amorado.”

After her father left Burton’s office, Tori marched aimlessly about the expensively appointed room. The dull wood and shiny brass of his immense Danish modern writing table was very different from the old polished desk Jesse used to fill the much smaller space he had available. Burton would undoubtedly scoff at his business opponent’s taste for antiques. Burton never liked to look back.

"Let’s go to the Manor tonight,” he suggested in an apparent attempt to distract her from her restlessness. The Manor was the most lavish restaurant in town. The food was rich, the wines exclusive, the service superb and the prices exorbitant. "They’ve got a band this evening.”

"At the moment, Burton, I’m not interested in dancing.” She gave him a commander-to-subordinate, dead-in-the-eye stare. "Was it your idea that I play chamber of commerce social coordinator?”

He balked. "I really don’t understand what you’re so worked up about. Your father said he wanted to bring you in as a partner and wondered what you could do. I suggested PR. What’s wrong with that? It’s a job that has to be done.”

She turned her exasperation on Burton. "You act as if I were nothing but window dressing in the Air Force. I didn’t get my promotions handed to me. I had to earn them. I controlled multimillion-dollar budgets and commanded dozens of men and women. But I’m not a salesperson and I don’t want to be.”

"Oh, I get it,” Burton taunted, grinning. "You’re worried about bagging Amorado.” He turned serious. "Don’t. You butter him up. I’ll take care of the negotiations.”

Anger flared as she faced him. "You just don’t get it, do you? I suppose I should go home now and practice baking brownies. If I get that right, will you let me do fudge, too?”

She’d left Coyote Springs thinking the unconscious condescension of the "little woman syndrome” was unique to West Texas—a holdover of the cowboy code of chivalry that said it was a man’s job to protect the women and children. The real world had taught her otherwise. Most men claimed they liked their women to be strong, yet they bristled whenever that strength competed with their own. Ultimately, men seemed to want women to be demure, domestic subordinates. And sexy as hell.

"Hey, chill out,” Burton grumbled. "Boy, you really are uptight.” He rested his hazel eyes on her and softened his tone. "What I’m suggesting is that we team up. Nobody expects you to arrive one day and conquer the world the next. You don’t have any experience at this.”

Forcing herself to calm down, she tried to analyze the situation dispassionately. On one level he was right. It was unrealistic to think she could move into his world of real estate and land development without training or experience. Still, his attitude rankled. She took a deep breath.

"Shall we call a truce, then?” He approached as if to embrace her, but she sidestepped him. He shrugged resignedly. "So how about dinner tonight? I made reservations at the Manor for seven o’clock.”

"A little presumptuous of you, wasn’t it?” she inquired. "Don’t you think you might have asked me first?”

He walked over to her and brought his hand up to her chin. Not only did she refuse to flinch, she locked onto his gaze.

"We’ve got some things to settle between us,” she said. "We might as well do it over dinner. But you’d better change those reservations to seven-thirty. There’s something I’ve got to do first.”

"You’ve changed,” he said. "I’m not sure I know you anymore.”

"Don’t be so sure you ever did.”

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