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Authors: Patricia; Potter

Perfect Family

BOOK: Perfect Family
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PRAISE FOR THE WRITING OF PATRICIA POTTER

“Patricia Potter is a master storyteller, a powerful weaver of romantic tales.” —Mary Jo Putney,
New York Times
–bestselling author

“One of the romance genre's finest talents.” —
Romantic Times

“Patricia Potter will thrill lovers of the suspense genre as well as those who enjoy a good romance.” —
Booklist

“Potter proves herself a gifted writer as artisan, creating a rich fabric of strong characters whose wit and intellect will enthrall even as their adventures entertain.” —
BookPage

“When a historical romance [gets] the Potter treatment, the story line is pure action and excitement, and the characters are wonderful.” —
BookBrowse

“Potter has an expert ability to invest in fully realized characters and a strong sense of place without losing momentum in the details, making this novel a pure pleasure.” —
Publishers Weekly
, starred review of
Beloved Warrior

“[Potter] proves that she's adept at penning both enthralling historicals and captivating contemporary novels.” —
Booklist
, starred review of
Dancing with a Rogue

The Perfect Family

Patricia Potter

prologue

S
EDONA
, A
RIZONA
, 1950

His gut burned.

Harding Clements reached over and touched the rifle he'd taken from the barn. Five more minutes. Five more minutes and he would face his wife.

His wife and her lover.

A long discordant blast jerked his eyes back to the road. Damn, he was on the center line. A monster truck bore down on him.

For a second, he thought about staying where he was. Betrayal was a poison eating through him, and he'd tasted it twice this day. He glanced down at the empty money bags on the seat behind him. He had gone to the bank this morning to pick up the payroll for the ranch hands, all of whom wanted cash. The money that was to have been deposited a week ago, the money that would see them through the fall and winter, was not there. His brother, Heath, had not deposited it. Instead, the account had been drained.

He had gone first to the guest cottage that Heath had been temporarily using. There had to be an explanation. But Heath was gone, and the cottage looked ransacked, as if someone had left in a hurry. He stood in the bedroom, looking at the pulled-out drawers and empty closet. Then he headed for the main house where he and his wife lived. He needed to think, to take a drink, or two. Thank God, none of the rest of his extended family were in the living room.

He had slipped quietly inside and walked up to the room he shared with his wife, Lori. He hesitated when he saw a suitcase near the door. Surprised, he started to go inside when he heard Lori's voice.

“Yes, darling. No, he went into town. He'll probably stop for a drink or two. I should be at the cabin in thirty minutes.”

Harding slipped back out the door. He considered confronting her, but he had to know who she was meeting. Even as, deep in his heart, he knew.

He had to have proof, though. He couldn't accuse his brother without it.

The cabin! It must be the Oak Creek cabin. Damn them. Damn both of them.

He ran out to his car and drove around the other side of the barn so she wouldn't see him. He heard her small sports car roar out of the yard and after waiting several moments, he spun out onto the road. He didn't have to follow closely.

The truck's horn blasted again. At the very last minute, he swerved, and the truck missed him by mere inches. He pulled over for a moment, reclaiming his breath. And he prayed. He prayed to God he wouldn't find Heath there, because if he did he would kill his brother.

He thought about the car she'd taken. The little red convertible. She loved that car and now she was taking it to meet her lover. Probably to escape together in it. All Heath had was an old pickup, unless, of course, he'd used the family's money to buy a new vehicle. He saw that damn red car in his mind's eye. It had been yet another example of her selfishness, her reckless spending. But he had loved her and indulged her even when it took every penny he had.

She had been unsatisfied with that last penny. He'd tolerated her growing complaints, observed the restlessness that went with them. He'd tried to ignore the disappearances, the too-transparent lies, because he'd been addicted to her beauty and the unrestrained passion that transported him, at least temporarily. He had hesitated to question her too closely, knowing her quick temper. And there was always the fear she might leave him.

He knew, of course, that Lori and Heath had once been childhood sweethearts. But when Heath and his twin marched off to Europe, Lori had been hurt and angry. Heath hadn't written to her once while he was away, hadn't made any effort to make sure she stayed his girl.

So Lori had turned to Harding. He realized after their marriage that she'd been more in love with the idea of becoming a Clements than in actually being his wife. He'd tried desperately to make it work, though. He'd loved her for years and he tried to give her anything that might make her happy. Content to be his.

But then an embittered Heath returned from the war. And Lori's eyes followed him everywhere.

Harding had tried not to notice, not to care. Heath had gone through a terrible time and had seen their brother—Heath's twin—die. He had the right to flirt. But Heath was Harding's hero. He had never thought his brother would take the flirtation any further.

He should have known better. War had done something to Heath, something irreparable. He no longer cared about anyone but himself. In the last year, he had complained as bitterly as Lori about lack of funds. He wanted to sell his share of the ranch and get into the oil business with an army buddy. But no one in the family had the cash to buy him out.

Apparently, he had found his own way to take both the money and Harding's wife.

The fury built again. There had been six of them: five boys, all with names starting with H, and one sister, Sarah. They had quarreled, fought, competed, but they had all been loyal to the Clements ranch and to each other.

Harding pulled back onto the highway. A part of his heart died with every mile he traveled. He reached out and touched the rifle lying next to him, then took a drink from the bottle left in his car several days ago. It burned his throat down to his gut. He almost choked on it, but still took another swallow. He needed liquid courage. He needed it to face his brother and his wife.

The road narrowed and he turned off onto a dirt road that wound into the canyon. It was fall, and the leaves were vivid yellow or orange with a mixture of rust colors. He usually loved this season. Not today, though. Today, he scarcely noticed.

He parked his car away from the cabin and took out his rifle. He felt as if he were sleepwalking, as if he were a character in a nightmare, as he walked down the dirt road to the cabin. Oak Creek seemed to mock him as the water tumbled over rocks in its rush to the swimming hole where he and his brothers once swam in their birthday suits. Memories. So many memories. They crashed around him like the lightning-downed trees.

Harding approached the adobe and log cabin. Two vehicles were parked in front of the cabin. Lori's car. Heath's truck. The cabin door was open. So was the door to one vehicle.

The cabin itself was framed by the cottonwoods and maples and oaks. But the trees faded into the background as his gaze remained on the door. His brother appeared in the opening, carrying a briefcase.

Heath stopped when he saw Harding. His eyes went to the rifle in his brother's hand. His body stiffened.

“Darlin'?” Lori's voice came from inside the cabin.

Harding could barely see now for the fury in him. The mist in his eyes. His wife's voice echoed in his brain. “Going somewhere, Heath?” His voice sounded scratchy, broken.

Heath stared at him defiantly.

“Where is the cattle sale money?”

Heath's gaze flickered to his briefcase, then back again. “I took it for my share of the ranch,” he said. “I never want to see a damn cow again.”

“We need that money.”

“So do I,” Heath said lazily. “At any rate, it's gone. I bought bearer bonds in Off-Shore Drilling in exchange for a partnership.”

Lori came out the door, her eyes widening at the sight of the two brothers. She moved to Heath's side.

Harding forced himself not to lunge at his brother. Not to tear him from limb to limb. Instead, he asked in what he hoped was a calm, reasoned voice, “Where are the bonds? I want the money back.”

Heath shrugged carelessly. “It's too late. The transaction was completed yesterday.”

“I could have you arrested.”

“You could, but you won't. The family wouldn't permit it,” Heath said. “Besides, it is just a loan and a good one for the Clementses. Those bonds will be worth millions some day.”

“The hell they will. That company will go bankrupt just like all your other damn money-making schemes.”

“Not this one,” Heath said. “They know the oil is there. We just needed the money for equipment.”

“The bonds?” Harding said. “Where are they?”

“Well hidden at the moment. I won't have you mucking this up for me. But I'll send you directions … in a book we're both familiar with. In time. Those bonds may be worthless at the moment, brother, but in another five years they will be worth millions. I've already buried them not far from here, and they will more than repay the money I've … borrowed temporarily. I swear it.”

“Your promises have never been worth a damn thing. You stole from the family. You know how much we needed that money.” Harding's gaze went to Lori. “You stole from me.”

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